Blue Rodeo Better Off As We Are

Blue Rodeo Better Off As We Are
It's easy to take something for granted when it becomes as integral to your cultural identity as an accent or even the changing seasons. For nearly 25 years, the music of Blue Rodeo has held such importance for thousands of Canadians. No other band, not even the Tragically Hip, has been as widely embraced, and in turn has naturally embodied so many sensibilities shared throughout the nation. But just as a clear definition of a Canadian sound remains elusive, so does the sound of Blue Rodeo. Firmly rooted in the traditions of folk, country and early rock'n'roll, they have, in spite of their evolution over the course of a dozen albums, been instantly identifiable, whether the voice leading the band belongs to Greg Keelor or Jim Cuddy. Theirs is a classic rock'n'roll bond, one built upon a simple dream, which now has given birth to its own community within Canada. It can't be over-emphasized, then, that Blue Rodeo's latest album, The Things We Left Behind, easily ranks among their best. It's also perhaps the band's most ambitious offering. With 16 tracks spread over two discs ― and four sides of vinyl ― Keelor and Cuddy push their songwriting in new directions, while never losing sight of what has always made their work great: the chemistry that only occurs when they, and the rest of the band, perform together. It's hard to conceive of where Canadian rock would be without them.

1971 to 1977
Jim Cuddy (born Dec. 2, 1955 in Toronto) and Greg Keelor (born Aug. 29, 1954 in Inverness County, NS) meet while attending North Toronto Collegiate. Cuddy is quarterback of the football team, while Keelor is on the defensive side. Cuddy's immediate post-graduation plans entail driving west with friends in a renovated school bus, and when one passenger pulls out, Keelor takes his place. The bus breaks down in Saskatchewan, whereupon Keelor finds work in Lake Louise and Cuddy heads to Banff. There, Cuddy meets an aspiring country/rockabilly singer named Robin Masyk, who later lands in Toronto under the name Handsome Ned. Masyk's example gets Cuddy performing in coffeehouses, while Keelor learns guitar by studying Gordon Lightfoot and Everly Brothers songbooks. Cuddy enrols at Queen's University in 1975, but keeps in touch with Keelor, now that they share a similar musical passion.

1978 to 1980
Back in Toronto together and inspired by local punk bands the Demics and the Mods, Keelor and Cuddy form the Hi-Fis, a power pop quartet. That band record a single, "I Don't Know Why (You Love Me)," for their manager's Showtime label, which drums up some interest within the city. They are approached by Ready Records, home to new wave acts Blue Peter and the Spoons, but the deal falls through when the Hi-Fis cannot find more gigs outside of their limited circuit. "A lot of partnerships are forged in failure," Cuddy says today. "We were actually quite happy doing what we'd been doing, even though we hadn't had a lot of success. When we started, everybody embraced the fact that we had two singers. Some people leaned more toward Greg's stuff, some more towards mine."

1981 to 1983
Cuddy's girlfriend (and future wife) Rena Polley is accepted at a New York City theatre school, and he opts to move there with her. Keelor follows suit, knowing that his old friends Michael Timmins and Alan Anton are also there with Hunger Project, the band that will become Cowboy Junkies. Cuddy and Keelor form Fly To France, with a revolving line-up recruited from Village Voice ads. The pair cross paths with a New Zealand outfit called the Drongos, and enlist them to help record a demo consisting of "Try," "Outskirts," "Rose-Coloured Glasses," and "Floating." Every label roundly rejects it as too soft. Their ex-pat Canadian manager Howard Wiseman introduces them to his younger brother Bobby, who studied avant-garde piano at York University. Their initial jams together are the few bright spots in an otherwise frustrating period. Keelor, who works as a waiter, suffers severe homesickness, and eventually convinces Cuddy to return to Toronto, a decision the latter instinctively feels is a mistake.

The pair first hires drummer Cleave Anderson, whose resume includes stints with Toronto bands the Battered Wives and the Sharks. Another one-time Shark, bassist Bazil Donovan, answers an ad placed in NOW magazine, and gets the gig without an audition based on Anderson's recommendation. With Wiseman also on board, they start seriously building a repertoire out of Keelor and Cuddy's original material. By now the pair are writing separately, with Keelor's songs taking on a more pronounced twang. He credits this to a new fondness for Patsy Cline, as well as Elvis Costello's 1981 country covers album Almost Blue, which partially lends the new band its name, Blue Rodeo.

Blue Rodeo plays its first gig on Feb. 12 at the Rivoli in Toronto. Two nights later they open for Handsome Ned at the Horseshoe Tavern. It's the first real indication they get that Ned is at the centre of a roots music revival within the Toronto club scene ― mainly instigated by disillusioned former punks. Following their next gig, a disastrous multi-band affair at CBGB in New York, the band confirms its allegiance to Toronto, where a potentially large audience seems ready to accept them. Keelor states, "Let's just say that Gordon Lightfoot and Ian Tyson invented the thing that we do. They were writing songs in Toronto in the early '60s, and that vein really took off. Then there was a bit of a drought during the early '80s. I'd agree that we in some ways replanted the seed, or picked up the torch for whatever that style of music is." Although Cuddy and Keelor's harmonies are a focal point, audiences are also drawn by the unique styles and personalities of the other members. Specifically, Wiseman's incomparable musical ability becomes a key component of the overall Blue Rodeo aesthetic.

1986 to 1987
Warner Canada's Bob Roper, one of the execs that had rejected Keelor and Cuddy's first demo, offers Blue Rodeo a deal after following their progress over the previous year. Their manager, John Caton, brings in long-time Rush producer Terry Brown for the first album, Outskirts, released through Risque Disque, a subsidiary label Caton and Brown have set up with Warner. The band isn't overly happy with Brown's approach in the studio, and the initial reception for Outskirts is tepid. The album, overall, has a dark, meandering feel, with several tracks featuring extended Wiseman solos. This theme is reinforced by the late addition of "Underground," written in honour of Ned, who died of a heroin overdose a week before sessions began. The band's fortunes change dramatically with the release of the second single, Cuddy's soaring ballad "Try," which is accompanied by a stylized video courtesy of his connections within the Toronto film industry. The band embarks on its first large-scale tour, opening for k.d. lang, and with airplay of "Try" driving album sales, several members are faced with Blue Rodeo now being a full-time career. "Jim had a job doing props for a commercial house all through that period," Keelor explains. "I even think he took a vacation to make the record. Cleave had a job too. And Jim had a child. Jim could really put in the hours ― he used to work on commercials all day and then play a show that night, and do that day after day. The success allowed him to commit to the band, so in that sense it did solidify our partnership."

1988 to 1989
Keelor forms side project Crash Vegas with girlfriend Michelle McAdorey, and Daniel Lanois' sister Jocelyne. They record at a Hamilton studio called the Lab, built by Daniel, and operated by his protégé Malcolm Burn. Eager not to repeat the experience of Outskirts, Keelor invites Burn to produce the next Blue Rodeo album, Diamond Mine. "We really wanted to change things because we didn't like how the producer took so many liberties with the sound of the band," Keelor says. "While I was driving Dan to the train station one night and picking his brain, he basically said, 'You know, you don't have to record in a studio.' So we got Doug McClement to bring his recording truck to a theatre on Donlands [in Toronto] and set up there. It just felt so much more like making a record ― we were in this great theatre with huge ceilings, and Malcolm was recording it. He was a little nuts too, in that he didn't want anything to sound standard or normal. That was really fun." Diamond Mine earns rave reviews and an edited version of the eight-minute title track becomes an immediate rock radio staple. Yet, just prior to its release, the band faces its first big challenge when Cleave Anderson leaves, not wishing to give up his job at Canada Post. Mark French replaces him in time for their first headlining theatre tour, but soon after manager John Caton quits the business citing both health and financial concerns.

1990 to 1991
Blue Rodeo sign with well-connected American manager Danny Goldberg, who immediately shifts the band's focus toward the U.S. market. The timing seems right ― even actress Meryl Streep is a fan. She requests that they appear as a wedding band in her movie Postcards From The Edge. For the third album, the group is paired with Dwight Yoakam guitarist/producer Pete Anderson, who insists on tightening up their sound for U.S. radio. Cuddy says, "Because of the success we had in Canada we just assumed the same thing would happen in the States. Gradually we discovered, boy, they really think differently down here. They do not like the fact that there are two, sometimes divergent, voices, and that sort of brought us up against the very idea of the band." Unsurprisingly, Casino turns out to be a mixed bag; although it is a hit in Canada, the expected U.S. breakthrough doesn't occur. Compounding this is Wiseman's growing frustration. He had been disappointed by Cleave Anderson's departure and felt marginalized during the Casino sessions. With Wiseman's exit now inevitable, the band begins preparing for wholesale changes. One of Wiseman's final tours includes an April 1990 show at the Toonik Tyme festival in Iqaluit. Although they are praised for being among the first prominent acts to play the Far North, the trip goes sour when two members are arrested for marijuana possession after a sniffer dog search at the airport. The charges are dropped a year later when a judge decrees the search was illegal under the Charter of Rights.

The band opts to self-produce Lost Together. Mark French is given his walking papers early in the process, and the drum stool is handed over to Glenn Milchem, a much in-demand veteran of the Toronto scene. His well-rounded style immediately adds new depth to Blue Rodeo's sound. They also invite Cowboy Junkies pedal steel guitarist Kim Deschamps to the sessions and he soon becomes a full-time member. Wiseman agrees to play on the album as a final gesture, and closing track "Angels" fittingly ends with a solo piano coda. "[Bobby] definitely wanted to do his own thing, and he didn't like that Jim and I were suggesting what and what not to play," Keelor says. "On the first couple of records he played whatever he wanted, really, with a suggestion from us once in a while, but we eventually got a little too involved in that department for him." Touring begins without a replacement keyboardist, but after 40 shows, both they and audiences aren't happy with the guitar-heavy sound. Through auditions they hire James Gray, another Toronto scene vet, whose father Jerry was a founding member of pioneering Canadian folk group the Travellers.

1993 to 1994
In reaction to the more aggressive approach that characterized Lost Together, Keelor and Cuddy each start writing acoustic-based material. In keeping with the laid back vibe, they bring Doug McClement's recording truck to Keelor's farm near Peterborough, ON where Five Days In July is laid down amid a party atmosphere. One of the prominent guests is Sarah McLachlan, who winds up singing on three tracks. The band debuts the entire album a few months later during its annual Ontario Place concert in Toronto, and its subtleties are missed at first. Keelor and Cuddy themselves had not intended Five Days to be much more than a pleasant side trip, but sales continue to climb throughout 1994 on the strength of singles "Five Days In May," "Hasn't Hit Me Yet," and "Bad Timing," the last another patented Cuddy ballad. Five Days becomes Blue Rodeo's most successful album to date. "We had this run from Outskirts to Lost Together that now kind of symbolizes the band we were ― the band that played the Horseshoe, and wrote songs and played them [in that spirit]," Cuddy says. "Then, all of a sudden we had to do something different, not because we felt like we'd run out of ideas, but because we were just so fucking tired. When we made Five Days In July we also discovered that this could all be a lot more fun than we were letting it be. It opened up a whole new set of possibilities to us."

1995 to 1996
The band reconvenes at Keelor's farm to record the follow-up to Five Days, although this time conditions are much different. They choose to work in winter, without a recording truck, and the confined atmosphere plays on the psyches of all members. Keelor is already in a fragile state, having just learned he had been adopted as a baby. Things come to a complete halt when Keelor suffers a serious fall, which triggers the onset of diabetes he experiences while driving to Nova Scotia in search of his birth mother. "I was so spaced out all the time that I never would have noticed any diabetic complications," Keelor says. "But when I fell from that loft, my head was fucked up, my ribs were fucked up, and the diabetes kicked in big time. When it finally got diagnosed, my blood sugar was 45, when it was supposed to be between four and seven. You're supposed to go unconscious at around 40." When Nowhere To Here finally appears in September 1995, the moody tone set by Keelor's lengthy opening numbers "Save Myself," and "Girl In Green" surprises many fans, in spite of McLachlan again guesting on both. The album is certified double platinum in Canada, still less than half of Five Days' total sales. A disappointing first-time headlining show at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens confirms the rising tensions within the band. Following the tour, Keelor and Cuddy agree to spend time apart. In October 1996, Keelor's longstanding support of First Nations people comes to the fore again when Warner releases Pine Ridge: Songs For Leonard Peltier, an album Keelor compiles to benefit the jailed Native activist. It includes tracks by McLachlan, the Tragically Hip, author Michael Ondaatje, and many other notable Canadian names.

1997 to 1998
Keelor studies with a guru in India, and on the flight back decides to channel his recent personal upheavals into a solo album. Gone, recorded with McLachlan's frequent producer Pierre Marchand, is quiet and meditative, and Keelor plays select intimate club shows to promote it. Cuddy tests the solo waters as well, although he stays on more familiar ground, forming a band that features Crash Vegas guitarist Colin Cripps and fiddler Anne Lindsay as the principal players. Cuddy works on All In Time over the next year ― roping in Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett as guests ― but by the time it is released, Blue Rodeo has already finished Tremolo, an admittedly tentative return. "Tremolo was a completely treading-water record," Cuddy says. "We could not attempt anything difficult, because we weren't even sure we could get along. Just the fact that we could make a record was good enough at the time. When I hear those songs now I realize they were underdeveloped, but that's just what that album is. We were lucky that we could just do it. That's not a high point for us, but surviving all that stuff allowed us to ramp up again."

1999 to 2001
The Tremolo tour yields the double live album Just Like A Vacation, although its appearance continues to suggest that Blue Rodeo are coasting. Keelor's health remains a deep concern. As they start work on The Days In Between, Keelor's diabetes puts him in the hospital for ten days, and he remains bedridden for another month. "There were probably a few months where I was just not functioning," Keelor says. "So when we came back to that record, I just didn't have too much to give. I love the demos, they're sort of experimental. But it's not my favourite Blue Rodeo record. I couldn't even sit down right now and sing one of my own songs off it." Once Keelor is able to work again, the band finishes the album in New Orleans with producer Trina Shoemaker. Upon its completion, Kim Deschamps departs and is immediately replaced by ex-Wilco pedal steel guitarist Bob Egan. Keelor develops a close association with the Sadies, who had recorded part of their second album, Pure Diamond Gold, at his farm. All of Blue Rodeo guest on their next album, Tremendous Efforts, with Keelor taking the lead vocal on the Elvis Presley nugget "Wearin' That Loved On Look." Blue Rodeo itself digs into the past by covering the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody" for Greatest Hits Vol. 1, and also revamping Casino's "After The Rain" with a horn section, a preview of things to come.

2002 to 2004
The band fulfils a long-held dream of building its own studio, the Woodshed, in downtown Toronto. It's immediately put to use for Palace Of Gold, a full-blown collaboration with the horn section they had employed the previous year. The album is easily Blue Rodeo's most engaging in recent memory, and Cuddy especially seems energized. "Jim had been listening to a lot of Stax [Records] stuff," Keelor says. "But Palace Of Gold was important in many other respects. We'd just opened our new studio and that was really exciting. The writing process was also a lot of fun, just thinking in terms of having horns as a part of the songs. We weren't very sophisticated at it, so it was a learning process. In the end we didn't integrate the horns as much as we could have, but at the same time it worked out pretty good." Palace Of Gold's title track is reworked by Keelor and the Sadies as "Stories Often Told," used as the centrepiece of their fourth album, which Keelor produces at the Woodshed. It's soon followed by The Unintended, a collaboration among Keelor, the Sadies, and Rick White of Eric's Trip, whose artwork now commonly graces Blue Rodeo's albums. That band becomes an outlet for Keelor's love of psychedelia, which is finding its way into his own songwriting more often.

The band marks the 20th anniversary of its first show by reforming its original line-up for a one-off performance filmed by Ron Mann for the retrospective DVD In Stereovision. The package also includes a documentary on the band's origins narrated by author Paul Quarrington. In April, they release the stripped down Are You Ready, notable for "Rena," Cuddy's ode to his wife, and "Beverley Street," a song resurrected from the Diamond Mine sessions. It also marks the end of James Gray's tenure in Blue Rodeo. "For the 20th anniversary, I tried to make a big deal of it, but I don't think that was very natural for the band," Cuddy says. "[Are You Ready] was a very spontaneous record. We worked very quickly, and in a lot of ways it was the antithesis of doing something in a way that would have made it clear that this band has been together for 20 years. I don't think we neglected that record; I think that record was what it was supposed to be, but our goal was to capture performances and get the energy of the band on tape." On its heels, Keelor releases Seven Songs For Jim, a eulogy for his father, who died in 2003. It includes a radically different arrangement of Are You Ready's title track.

All of the members concentrate on solo projects: Cuddy and his band release The Light That Guides You Home, featuring guest vocals by Kathleen Edwards; Keelor releases the psych-folk excursion Aphrodite Rose; Bazil Donovan polishes his long-gestating collection of country covers, Matinee, eventually released in 2008; Bob Egan collaborates with the Weakerthans' Jason Tait on The Glorious Decline, and Glenn Milchem releases Awkward Situation by his band the Swallows, while simultaneously working with Holy Fuck. Cuddy says, "Allowing everyone in the band, and certainly Greg and I allowing each other to do work on our own, is extremely necessary. We cannot work in tandem, in a group, in a partnership all the time. You have to at some points follow, from beginning to end, your own lead and initiative. You come back a much stronger collaborator."

2007 to 2008
With Bob Packwood, keyboardist in Cuddy's solo band, tapped to replace Gray, Blue Rodeo records Small Miracles. The album is launched with a series of unannounced acoustic performances around Toronto, and an acoustic set is incorporated into the subsequent cross-Canada tour. The final night at Toronto's Massey Hall is documented on the CD/DVD package Blue Road, released in October 2008. It also includes a documentary by director Chris Mills, featuring raw footage and interviews from the Small Miracles sessions. The year ends on a strange note, though, when Packwood abruptly quits the band. "We were doing sessions with Garth Hudson [of the Band] for his record," Keelor says. "Meanwhile, Packwood's father is on his deathbed. His father was the attorney general of Montana, appointed by Nixon, so obviously he was a big time Republican. Bob and his brother were hardcore, acid-eating Deadheads, so it's fair to say that he didn't have a great relationship with his father. Even as he was dying, Bob wouldn't go see him or talk to him. So we're there the first day recording with Garth, and for Bob this was like being with God or Moses ― his iconic father ― and he was just so happy. Then the next day, Jim's not totally prepared, but it's no big deal. We're sitting down to learn the music and Bob gets so pissed off that Jim doesn't know the song. They have this little flare-up, Bob runs out of the studio and we never see him again. The great irony is that Jim ended up playing piano on the song."

Keelor produces Cuff the Duke's Way Down Here. It sets the stage for Blue Rodeo's next release, The Things We Left Behind, a dynamic double album that showcases all of the band's strengths. Keyboards are handled by Michael Boguski of Toronto band the Beauties, and Steve O'Connor of Cuddy's solo band. Cuff the Duke's Wayne Petti also makes significant vocal contributions. It's Blue Rodeo's most impressive work in years, and reconfirms their status as Canada's most important band of the past two decades. According to Keelor, "A record that I was listening to a lot this year was the third Big Star album. I loved the combination of the darkness and the orchestration on that record, and the songs have that certain melancholy about them. I find that a very pleasant place to be when people are that melancholic." In Cuddy's view, "We thought we had two records, one that could be like a 'daytime' record, and one that could be 'night time' with more moody pieces on it, or would be a bit more jammy. By the time we laid the songs out it seemed that idea would do a disservice to them, so we finally had to commit to doing a double record, with each disc being the traditional length of an album, 40 or 45 minutes. While we were at the point of deciding all of this, Thom Yorke made his big pronouncement that the album was dead, albums are boring, we'll never participate in that again, and we'll only be doing singles. That made us think there couldn't be a better time then to make a double album. If Thom Yorke said that, then we've gotta do the opposite."

Pick up a vinyl copy of Blue Rodeo's classic album Five Days in July via MusicVaultz.