The Try-ing times of Blue Rodeo

The veteran band celebrates 25 years with box set and staging their own tribute night

Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo laughs and says, “When I think of the mistakes that we have made over the years and that we’ve survived, it’s ridiculous.”

It’s also miraculous. To be any kind of band for longer than five years is a major victory. To be a band for 25 years is a formidable feat, especially in this country. But to be a successful Canadian band for over 25 years putting out new albums that routinely go gold and platinum is—well, now we’re really only talking about two bands: The Tragically Hip and Blue Rodeo.

Blue Rodeo played their first gig in Toronto in February 1985, after Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor returned from New York City. They released their first album, Outskirts, in 1987. Unlike The Tragically Hip, who are exactly the same age and have maintained the same lineup since day one, Blue Rodeo has a large extended family of ex-members and star collaborators who have bolstered the core trio of Cuddy, Keelor and bassist Bazil Donovan. Some of those showed up at an intimate show at the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio for some live karaoke, performing the band’s greatest hits, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Outskirts and a new box set compiling the group’s first five albums.

The show opened with Cuff the Duke, a group that—like Blue Rodeo—came to traditional country music via the alternative scene of their time, which in the case of Cuff the Duke was the early 2000s. Singer Wayne Petti admitted to learning harmonica to Five Days in May, and bought his first capo to play Hasn’t Hit Me Yet. As each performer of the night took the stage, they told a story about having a Damascene moment with a Blue Rodeo song, or of a band member reaching out and giving them a leg up, or of being invited onstage to sing Lost Together, which is surely the Four Strong Winds of this generation.

Oh Susanna, aka Suzie Ungerleider, whose debut EP came out a mere 15 years ago, told the audience about living in Vancouver in the early ’90s and listening to a lot of old, scratchy music, the most modern of which was Hank Williams. Her boyfriend drove a recycling truck with a crappy sound system; on her day off she’d ride around with him on his shift and listen to the radio. One day while driving in view of the mountains, she heard a track that hit her like a moment of clarity: the song, the arrangement, and the singer whose voice rang out through the radio. “Which one?” cracked Keelor, knowing full well that when people fall in love with one of Blue Rodeo’s two singers, it’s usually Cuddy.

Justin Rutledge, who recently collaborated with Michael Ondaatje on a stage play, recalled getting his start at an old Blue Rodeo haunt, the Cameron House, which eventually led to a Monday residency there. A couple of Mondays in a row he saw who he thought was Bazil Donovan of Blue Rodeo in the audience; of course, it was. The third Monday, Bazil came up to him and wanted to buy a CD. Justin said, “No, man, really, I listened to you all the time growing up, please, I’d love for you to just have one.” Bazil stared him in the eye, thrust a $20 bill closer to his chest and said, “In this biz, kid, you learn to take the money.”

The rest of the cast ranged from the Skydiggers—contemporaries to whom Keelor first offered Hasn’t Hit Me Yet—to Cuddy’s 25-year-old son Devin, now a singer/songwriter with a debut album out. Ron Sexsmith did Love and Understanding. Whitehorse, the duo of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, put some swing into the normally dirge-like prayer Dark Angel. The Sadies, a band Keelor has mentored for the past 15 years and makes no secret of his envy for, joined Blue Rodeo for a psychedelic meltdown on Diamond Mine.

  • A live recording of the Glenn Gould Studio show can be heard on CBC Radio 2 on Thursday Nov. 8 at 7 p.m.

And then there was Try. Cuddy launched right into the band’s signature 1987 hit immediately after some casual banter with Keelor; no lead-up, no story, no sense of climax—entirely perfunctory. And yet it was note-perfect and delivered with as much professionalism and perfection as ever. Was it robotic? Of course. You believe any veteran performer still “feels” his biggest hit? Frank Sinatra hated My Way. For at least a year before Try’s release as a single, it was a highlight of Blue Rodeo’s live set—sometimes they would play it two, three times a night, by popular demand. These days, Jim Cuddy plays it with his solo project as well as, of course, every single gig with Blue Rodeo. He’s sung this song literally thousands of times in his life. That doesn’t lessen its impact: there’s no denying Try deserves its place in the great ballads of all time, largely because of the soulful rhythm section, which is why it got a successful R&B makeover by JackSoul a few years back, and why it was recently jacked by Maestro Fresh Wes on his most new single, Reach for the Sky.

The set list drew almost exclusively from the five albums that comprise the box set—Outskirts, Diamond Mine, Casino, Lost Together and Five Days in July—five albums that still form the bulk of Blue Rodeo’s set list on any given night. Those songs form a canon that few other Canadian artists come close to challenging. Blue Rodeo have had a lot of peaks and valleys since, but nothing they’ve done comes close to the consistent excellence on those records, where the band is in almost a constant state of transition, tension and tenacity. The band was hungry, and it sounds like it.

These days, we take Blue Rodeo for granted: they’re cozy and reliable. It’s easy to forget what an anomaly they were in the ’80s, sounding the way bands like Wilco and My Morning Jacket do now. It was a time when no one came to country music from the “other” side of the tracks (i.e. Queen Street West clubs), when there was neither a rock band nor a country act in the world with a wild-card improvisational keyboardist like Bob Wiseman, when even the true believers of rock’n’roll fell victim to distracting production tricks in the studio—including a young Blue Rodeo.

Keelor says he lost sleep for years over how Outskirts sounded; even though it doesn’t actually sound like Tears for Fears (which he claims, only half-jokingly, it does), there are’80s effects on it that he thinks betray the strength of the band at the time. So when asked to reflect on its anniversary for the box set, he insisted on remixing it from scratch (although the beloved original is also part of the box, to avoid complete revisionism).

“It was a treat to just go back and listen to those recordings and hear the way we played,” he says, over the phone from his farm near Peterborough, Ont., two days after the CBC show. “Then we made it sound more like the band—put a bit more of the [sound of the] bar in there rather than the ’80s radio sound on it.” A steel guitar solo is restored in the song Underground, the songs Piranha Pool and Floating feature different extended Bob Wiseman solos, and four tracks feature the vocals recorded while the band was laying down bed tracks, as opposed to the overdubbed—and according to Keelor, “overwrought”—vocals recorded later.

The other four albums in the package get a simple remastering job, but 1991’s Casino comes with a full disc of demo versions that the band only rediscovered halfway through the process of assembling the box set. They were recorded in the band’s rehearsal space on an eight-track machine with just microphones in the room—and sound just as good, if not better, than the real album. “We’d just press record,” says Keelor. “We didn’t know anything about the process. Our live engineer, Kenny McNeill, made us cassettes, and sent one off to [Casino producer] Pete Anderson, and that was the end of it. We always did love those, but none of us had listened to them since. It was just a memory. That one song at the beginning of the Casino demos, I’d completely forgotten about: If I Had A Heart. It was something where I was embarrassed by a couple of lines in it. I’m so lazy, I couldn’t rewrite it, so I’d just can the song.”

Casino was the band’s bid for the American market, one where they tempered their more oddball (or, arguably, indulgent) tendencies for a straight-up pop approach in an L.A. studio, with Anderson, the producer responsible for Dwight Yoakam, then one of the most commercially successful country crossover acts in the U.S. Anderson cut back Wiseman’s role in the band, refused to let any song stray over the four-minute mark or to have more than 10 songs on the album. They passed up a chance to work with Geoff Emerick, who worked on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, among other classics, to work with Anderson.

“That we didn’t use Geoff Emerick for Casino is one of our major regrets,” says Keelor. “But there’s something beautiful about not doing it with him, because now I can just imagine how beautiful it might have been. I mean, it could have been a disaster. Everything goes the way it’s supposed to go. Casino is for a lot of people their favourite Blue Rodeo record, for all the reasons Pete Anderson put into it: it is a concise, snappy little effort. Everything he put on the record, he thought was a single. He didn’t want any sort of filler.”

No question: Blue Rodeo have put out plenty of filler—especially in recent years—but there’s nary any on those first five albums. Their most recent album, 2009’s Things We Left Behind, was a sprawling double album that garnered their best reviews and best sales in over a decade. Keelor thinks the record they’re finishing right now is even better—despite the fact that his hearing is “toast” and he can’t play electric guitar on stage anymore. However, he says that disability has enhanced the band’s chemistry: they now perform with all amps off-stage; the band is linked through in-ear monitors; and the addition of renowned electric guitarist Colin Cripps (Crash Vegas, Kathleen Edwards) gives it a new spark, as does new keyboardist Michael Boguski.

So what, if anything, would break up Blue Rodeo after multiple lineup changes—some amicable, some not—and frequent solo records from the two principals? Keelor takes a long pause before answering. “Right now we’re okay,” he surmises. “The way the band is playing right now it’s working out. This record will come out next year this time, and we’re going to do 25 shows before that; there will be another tour for the record. That will take us another three or four years there. By then we might have had enough and Jim can go full-time on his solo career.”

For a full transcript of Michael Barclay’s conversation with Greg Keelor, as well as a track-by-track review of the bonus material in the box set, read his blog here.


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