A place of which it was once said: “Saskatoon’s got nothing but hookers and hockey players,” the northern Canadian outpost of only around 300,000 denizens is now shaking off any past negative association with a seemingly unstoppable array of creative musical talent emerging from the city recently, whether that be The Deep Dark Woods, Colter Wall, One Band Son, Kacy and Clayton, or tonight’s headline act, The Sheepdogs. The only unsigned band to ever feature on the front cover of Rolling Stone magazine, The Sheepdogs were also Battle of The Band winners back in 2011 as self-described specialists in “melody, harmony, guitar solos and general feel-goodery.”
The Allman Brothers Band loving Canadian quintet are on a brief UK and European tour to promote their sixth album, ‘Changing Colours,’ tonight playing in the snug confines of the Lexington in Islington. In a dramatic start, the band appear on stage in darkness, teasing the crowd with the opening chords of ‘I’ve Got A Hole Where My Heart Should Be,’ before they’re instantaneously illuminated by the band’s flashing logo.
The Sheepdogs’ latest record features psychedelic fonts and a design that wouldn’t be out of place on a 1960’s album and musically they explore the same tropes. They’re heavily reliant on a bluesy rock sound that’s been described as equal parts the Guess Who and Humble Pie – but with a fair smattering of southern fried boogie thrown into the mix too. They follow ‘I’ve Got a Hole Where My Heart Should Be’ with ‘Saturday Night,’ another single from ‘Changing Colours,’ before letting loose with the hit, ‘Who,’ from their ‘Five Easy Pieces’ EP.
Although it’s a relentlessly retro sounding affair, they introduce some variety into the set with a number of new songs aired tonight, ‘Cool Down’ having a laid back, almost Santana-like feel, while ‘I Ain’t Cool’ has a soulful almost Stax sounding vibe, featuring a rare but nonetheless welcome addition for a rock show: a trombone solo from Shamus Currie.
Lead singer and principal songwriter, Ewan Currie, has a fine voice and while the whole band are highly adept musicians much of the focus is on former child prodigy and multi-instrumentalist Jimmy Bowskill, a lead, pedal steel and fiddle supremo, who demonstrates his considerable pedigree throughout the entire performance. If, as the popular saying goes, all the world’s a stage, then Bowskill certainly dresses for the occasion – his diminutive figure attired in a bright canary outfit with red tassels liberally interspersed with cannabis leaves – a psychedelic ensemble which Elton John would have been proud of in his heyday.
It’s a measure of the high esteem in which The Sheepdogs hold his contribution to the band that he merits his own instrumental dedication, ‘The Bailieboro Turnaround,’ Bowskill so talented that apparently he managed to learn the band’s entire set in the space of just one rehearsal. It’s also a celebration of their native home, as is ‘Up In Canada,’ a countryish-sounding commemoration of their Saskatchewan origins.
The Sheepdogs manage to save the best to last, including what Ewan Currie says is his favourite song from the new album, ‘Nobody,’ with a guitar solo reminiscent of the Allmans’ ‘Jessica’ so it’s maybe appropriate that the last song of the night is a rousing rendition of ‘Ramblin’ Man’ – dedicated to the Allmans – “the greatest band to come out of America” – before they exit stage left.
12 years into their musical career, there’s little doubt that The Sheepdogs have earned their musical spurs and while their fusion of rock, soul, and country proves too derivative at times, the passion with which it’s delivered, the prowess of Ewan Currie’s vocals, and their tight-as-a-snare-drum musicianship make them a hard package to resist.