Blue Rodeo

TrackAlbum
A Heart Like MineOutskirts
Five Days In MayFive Days In July
Hasn't Hit Me YetFive Days In July
I Can't Hide This Anymore1000 Arms
Lost TogetherLost Together
Finger LakesAre You Ready
Summer GirlsSmall Miracles
The SeekerThe Days In Between
New Morning SunIn Our Nature
Venus RisingThe Things We Left Behind

Blue Rodeo photo 1

l-r: Jim Cuddy (guitar, vocal), Bobby Wiseman (keyboards), Greg Keelor (guitar, vocal), Cleave Anderson (drums), Bazil Donovan (bass)

 

 

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Blue Rodeo playlist

 

 

Contributor: Carl Parker

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor are the Lennon & McCartney of Canadian music. Jim and Greg form the heart and soul of Blue Rodeo, a band that has been together for close to 40 years, having released their first album in 1987, though Blue Rodeo had existed since 1984, and the pair of them had been together in bands since earlier in
the 80s. In terms of Canadian music they stand as one of the country’s most successful and award-garlanded bands.

Blue Rodeo have had a fair few line-up changes, but bassist Bazil Donovan is another member who has been a permanent fixture since the very beginning, while drummer Glenn Milchem has been there since 1991. Pedal steel guitarist Bob Egan left in 2016 after a 17-year stint, for family reasons.

Discovering Blue Rodeo came about purely by chance. In 2003 we were on holiday, touring the Deep South taking a circular route from and back to Atlanta, Georgia taking in Nashville, Memphis, Lafayette and New Orleans.

On our second night in Nashville, we were looking at the local paper trying to decide, from among myriad selection of bands and artists we had never heard of, who to go and see. Whoever we chose, it was going to be pot-luck. We decided on Blue Rodeo, playing that night at the Exit In, simply because that venue was very close to our hotel. (If you have seen Robert Altman’s film Nashville, the Exit In is the venue where Keith Carradine’s character plays a gig).

We entered in hope rather than expectation and left a few hours later exhilarated to have discovered this great Canadian band. Despite the name, and the city where we first saw them, Blue Rodeo aren’t particularly a country band, though there is that influence, among many others.

With 15 studio albums to pick from (there are also three live sets on top of which the various band members have come up with another 16 solo albums/side-projects, though nothing from those albums is under consideration here) there is clearly no shortage of songs from which I have
to choose just ten.

Returning to the Lennon/McCartney analogy, in the same way that people speak of their preference for either John or Paul’s songs, Blue Rodeo fans are divided between Cuddyeans and Keelorites. Though they share vocals on background, choruses and harmonies they sing lead on their own songs. In a previous incarnation of the band website there was a fan forum which contained within it sections for those with a preference one way or the other. In our house I am a Keelorite, while my wife is a Cuddyean. My Toppermost selection will show no preference and I have five of Greg’s and five of Jim’s songs.

Their albums alternate songs. One of Greg’s is followed by one of Jim’s. How complete the songs are before they start rehearsing them I don’t know. I’m sure they must make suggestions and possibly offer changes to lyrics to each other. As a band I’m sure the other band members must also offer something.

I’m going to start at the very beginning with album one, track one. This first song is one of Greg’s and it’s titled A Heart Like Mine. The album is called Outskirts.

The song opens with the first two verses sung a capella. That seems to me to have been an incredibly brave move. It’s the complete opposite of making an entrance with a bang. For an established band with a few albums behind it, it would seem adventurous. For a new band looking to sell their songs to the world some might suggest it was foolhardy. While they had built up a following in Toronto and were probably known to a minority in other cities in Canada, to place this track as the opener on your debut that you’re putting out to the world demonstrates inordinate confidence in what they had recorded and were offering. That confidence paid off because the public liked it; they succeeded and are still going for closing on 40 years.

Like many of Greg’s songs it deals with the end of an affair, but looks forward to a new relationship.

 

Having nailed my flag to the Keelorite mast, it seems strange that the songs I recall from that very first gig are all Jim’s. The distinction of liking one more than the other is merely one of degree. This song, while being about love, takes a very different track from Greg.

It’s called Five Days In May, from their fifth album Five Days In July (it also appears on Greatest Hits). In the sleeve notes to the live album Just Like A Vacation, Jim notes that the song’s roots lie in a tour to New Zealand, when they were on a beach and their soundman wrote his wife’s name in the sand, which was one of a number of ritual acts he undertook to remind himself of her. Drove on down where the beaches are, He wrote her name in the sand, Never even let go of her hand.

Other parts of the lyric describe his own relationship with his wife, though moving it into the abstract by sketching a tale of two lovers – a chance meeting, a trip to the sea and the beginning of a lasting affair: Looking back it’s hard to tell, Why they stood while others fell, All I know is one cloudy day, They both just ran away, Rain on the windshield heading south.

I love Jim’s guitar solo at the end. It may not be the most technically complicated solo, but it fits the song perfectly.

Given the breadth of the Blue Rodeo oeuvre, I wanted to spread my selections over as many albums as possible, but at the same time when two of my favourite BR songs are found on the same collection, I had to ask myself if one can be ignored because of an arbitrary and restrictive
decision. As one is from Greg and the other from Jim, I decided I could go with the two songs (unlike further on where I have had to make a choice between two of Greg’s songs that are on the same album).

This is one of Greg’s songs and it also comes from the album Five Days In July (and again another song that appears on Greatest Hits). It is not just one of my favourite BR songs, but one of my favourite all-time songs. In the UK on BBC Radio there is a programme called Desert Island Discs where guests are interviewed about their life while picking just eight pieces of music they would want to hear, should they find themselves washed up on a mythical island. This would definitely be one of my eight.

A couple of years after seeing the band in Nashville we were so pleased to find they were touring the UK. When we saw the dates we were surprised to see they were playing two nights at The Borderline in London. It had a capacity of just over 200 which is not that big, but given that no-one
we knew had ever heard of them prior to our proselytising on their behalf, we wondered how the promoter had come to book them for two nights.

We found out why. For those two nights there was a tiny corner of London that had been annexed by Canada. On the night we attended we were probably the only two Brits in the audience. While I was more familiar with their songs than I had been, I wasn’t anywhere near as knowledgeable as the rest of the audience. For the final song of the set Greg stepped in front of his mic and stood at the edge of the tiny stage (which was a tight fit for a six-piece band) and began strumming his guitar. Then the massed voices of the audience began “You say that you’re leaving, Well that comes as no surprise…”. I half knew the words and tried to join in. But I couldn’t match the intensity and exuberance of the crowd. It was one of the most magnificent, magical moments among my gig going experiences. The first verse and chorus end, then the rest of the band join in. It must have been great for the crowd, enjoying seeing the band in the intimacy of this tiny venue, compared to the halls they would have seen BR in back in Canada (see the live video). The song is called Hasn’t Hit Me Yet.

I’m posting two videos for this. The studio version and a live version to give a taste of what the live experience is like with the audience singing the opening.

On the song itself, I really love the way Greg rolls the letter R when he sings “crrack”. This is another song of lost love, as it seems so many of Greg’s songs are.

 

 

It was only when I came to write this that I realised how long it has been since Blue Rodeo produced a studio album. At time of writing their most recent album was 1000 Arms which was released in October 2016. Neither Jim nor Greg have been idle and have both released two solo albums each since the last BR album. The band still is a working entity as they have been announcing their first post-lockdown gigs (though there have been inevitable postponements).

Given that 1000 Arms was their 15th album, coming out 29 years after their debut, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this could have been a tired, uninspired Blue Rodeo-by-the-numbers exercise. Far from it, they still sound fresh and enthusiastic. I do wonder if it’s because, while they are a big deal in Canada, though much less so around the world, they have never suffered the claustrophobic pressures of high profile success and can get on with producing music while being grounded in the real lives we all lead, which in turn gives them insight into the sorts of experience that we all live through and can relate to.

Like most of Jim’s love songs I believe this one – I Can’t Hide This Anymore – is an invented scenario, rather than written from bitter experience. I understand he is still happily married (to Rena, the subject of a song on the Are You Ready album). It is about a dying relationship, though the narrator seems to be singing from of a position of being relieved because he’s realised things are finally coming to an end:

I can’t hide this anymore
I give up, you win the war
We’ve both got better things to do
Than sit around and see this through

 

In 2020, in response to people being forced to isolate in response to the pandemic, the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) polled listeners across the country to choose a song for a national singalong. I don’t know what other songs were on the shortlist, but the winning song was Lost
Together
.

Lost Together was also the title of the band’s fourth album, released in 1992. It’s one of Greg’s songs and is a celebration of love:

And I want all the world to know
That your love’s all I need (All that I need)
And if we’re lost
Then we are lost together

I’m sure there were naysayers who thought it should be something else, but to me this seems to fit the bill for people who are looking for something to celebrate a time of great difficulty.

As for the song it exemplifies something I’m sure everyone feels when we’re with the person we love, that whatever the world throws at us, it doesn’t matter if we have each other: In the silence of this whispered night, I listen only to your breath, And that second of a shooting star, Somehow it all makes sense. I listen only to your breath.

 

Although I have mentioned the song Rena on the Are You Ready album, that’s not my selection from that disc. Instead, I’ve gone for the lovely Finger Lakes.

The Finger Lakes lie in upper New York State. They are a group of roughly parallel lakes aligned in North/South direction that drain into Lake Ontario. Consequently, they aren’t too far from the Canadian Border and probably only a couple of hundred miles from Toronto. A couple of years back we were fortunate enough to find ourselves in the area, which is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful, so this song is in some ways a reminder.

However, other than mentioning the lakes in the opening line, it isn’t really about them. It’s about the solidity of a relationship, based upon a lovely melody and overall is great band performance, especially Bob Egan’s steel guitar for the last half minute or so.

I will always come if you need me
And I will never forget the things you said
And in my hour of darkness
You will come to me
And I will raise up my worried head

 

Lyrically, Summer Girls belongs to that tradition of boy meets girl for those brief moments under the sun. You could criticise it by saying it contains all the clichés for summer songs, but Jim has reassembled them to create a slightly different version – one where the singer doesn’t just see it as a fleeting relationship but something that will last beyond the summer. He’s disillusioned with the short term but fun relationships – And no, I can’t do this anymore, No, I’ve lost the feeling…

There is a parallel to Don Henley’s Boys Of Summer, insofar as that song also looks to the end of the season, but whereas Henley declares the steadfastness of his love, here Jim’s character articulates a desire but he doesn’t know whether his dream will come true.

I want you to stay
After all the summer girls have gone away…
I need the one
Who will walk with me in fall when summer’s gone

Musically it’s upbeat and driving and captures a summery mood, making you long for those holiday times under a warm sun. It takes you back to summers of your youth.

 

Prior to pulling this together I decided it would only be fair to pick five songs each from Greg and Jim, So I created a long list of my favourite songs by the band, identified who wrote what then identified my five favourites by each of them. Having done that, I hit a problem. One of my five favourites of Greg’s songs, titled What A Surprise and found on the Palace Of Gold album, can’t be found in any version online. Some countries can access the album via Spotify, but I can’t in the UK. As far as I can tell, the band have never played it live, so there isn’t even a poor quality phone-sourced recording. It’s not on YouTube as a single track, nor has the complete album been uploaded, which would at least allow me to say “Start listening here”. So that lovely song with its use of brass and strings cannot be included.

Instead, I’ve gone to my list and next up is another of my favourites from Greg, namely The Seeker from the album The Days In Between. (Actually it was a very close call between this and Andrea from the same album, but I have not included Andrea because, as mentioned, I don’t want to include two songs from the same writer from a single album).

While it may be a lesser choice, it’s an excellent alternative and it should in no way be considered as a second rate song. It opens with the lines – You were the seeker, Then you found there’s nothing to find…

Greg appears to be reaching out to a friend – You were the dreamer, Who got lost in your escape…

However, the line that follows that – When beauty became a prison, You found your freedom in the mundane – makes me wonder if the song is a little bit more abstract, possibly inspired by, or even about, Nico (the former model, Velvet Underground singer and solo artist). I recall reading that she felt trapped by her beauty and found it almost impossible to be regarded seriously, because people could not see the person below the skin and couldn’t accept that such a beautiful woman had anything serious or meaningful to say.

Whatever or whoever it is about, it’s one of my favourites among Greg’s songs.

 

The last of Jim’s songs is from their 2013 album, In Our Nature. New Morning Sun is a song of hope, a song that speculates on what could be and what could be lost. A song that in its opening lines recognises the flawed nature of humanity. None of us are free from fault, but if we recognise that we can use the knowledge as the basis of an honest relationship …

Maybe now we could be lovers
We’ll share all the darkness in our souls

I’m not sure if the idea is that the subject of the singer’s affections is a prostitute, as the second verse opens Way down here under the red lights, We carved our futures on the wall… The red light symbolism may suggest that, but otherwise there isn’t anything else in the lyrics that develops or confirms that idea.

Instead, near the end it goes – All our games are played, We gotta live with the mess that we made – there is no suggestion that there are difficulties that are solely the partner’s responsibility. The chorus repeats the idea of each day being a chance to start anew: Gotta rise up, Rise up and take the sky like a new morning sun.

It’s another of Jim’s upbeat songs that contrasts markedly with my final choice.

I’m ending this selection with Blue Rodeo’s longest song, Venus Rising from the album The Things We Left Behind which runs to over 10 minutes. Keeping things symmetrical, I started with one of Greg’s songs and I’m finishing with one.

It could be Blue Rodeo’s slowest song, but for me it’s one of their most gorgeous and most moving. It’s apparently about a female musician:

Do you know what you’re doing
Now that he’s gone you’re all alone
Except for the band

It could be about a specific singer or might be pure invention.

The whiskey and applause
Just another way to get lost
Cause you don’t want to remember
When you used to treat him better

Whoever it is, she’s apparently a great singer (assuming it is a woman) – as Greg sings:

If you could learn how to play that guitar
You sure could go far
Cause when you sing
You sure know how to break a heart

I haven’t mentioned bassist Bazil Donovan other than in my introduction, but he should get a special mention here because his bass and Glenn Milchem’s drum lay down a rhythm that really lays a foundation, giving Greg and the rest of the band free rein to play over it.

This final clip is a rooftop gig, recorded on a January morning in Toronto. It seems quite balmy for Canada at that time of year. I like how the film starts in black and white, but the colour bleeds in. A great performance of a great song. I hope you like it (and have liked the previous nine).

In the course of pulling this together I found out that Blue Rodeo have called time on touring. They will play festivals and other one-off dates (and I think they are recording a new album), but Greg, especially, doesn’t want to put himself through the rigours of life on the road, because of encroaching age and ill-health.

 

Five more songs from Greg to check out:

Dark AngelFive Days In July
Dust To Gold1000 Arms
Glad To Be AlivePalace Of Gold
Homeward Bound AngelPalace Of Gold
Side Of The RoadNowhere To Here

Five more songs from Jim to check out:

After the RainCasino
Bad TimingFive Days In July
BulletproofPalace Of Gold
One Light Left In HeavenThe Things We Left Behind
Three Hours AwaySmall Miracles

The 2001 Greatest Hits album includes several of the above tracks and three from my top ten.

 

 

Blue Rodeo photo 2

Jim Cuddy (left) and Greg Keelor

 

Blue Rodeo official website

Blue Rodeo Discography

Blue Rodeo Archives (University of Toronto)

CanadianBands.com: Blue Rodeo

Greg Keelor official website

Jim Cuddy official website

Blue Rodeo biography (AllMusic)

Carl Parker originated in Chester but has lived in north London since 1981. He’s unusual in these times in not subscribing to any social media, but contributes to sites like The Afterword and used to contribute to No Depression before it turned into an elitist institution. He’s recently retired and enjoys a relaxed life, where listening to new music is a recurring pleasure.

TopperPost #973

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    Aug 4, 2021

    Excellent Toppermost on a fine band. Knew their early work – especially ‘5 Days in May’ – from my time living in Canada in late 80s/ early 90s but hadn’t kept up with them since. Thanks for filling in the rest of the story.

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