Blue Rodeo – Beyond the blues
As strong as it was, however, Casino didn’t necessarily mean Blue Rodeo had found what it was looking for in terms of artistic expression. “I think that when you’re doing music for a long time, you end up wanting to cover a lot of ground,” says Cuddy, who shares the singing, songwriting and guitar-playing duties in the band with Keelor. “It has seemed to be that whatever we’ve just done is not something that we end up repeating.”
Indeed, the yin-yang cycle continued on 1992’s Lost Together, which swung the pendulum back in the boundary-stretching direction with a running time of 65 minutes. On the other hand, the disc seemed to show signs of Blue Rodeo finding a common ground between its clear pop talents and more ambitious tendencies: The long songs were mostly in the range of five minutes rather than seven or eight, and their melodies drew more upon classic structures even while pushing those limits a bit. In addition, Lost Together marked the last album that featured keyboardist Bob Wiseman — the most jazz-oriented player of the bunch — and the introduction of a new member, former Cowboy Junkies sideman Kim Deschamps, on pedal steel and other string instruments. (Current drummer Glenn Milchem also made his debut on this disc; current keyboardist James Gray joined the band shortly after Lost Together was recorded.)
The ensuing Five Days In July, recorded in the summer of ’93 at Keelor’s farm about an hour outside Toronto, is a more laid-back, mostly acoustic affair, sounding (as its title implied) very much like a stretch of summertime days spent hanging out in the country. A couple of deeper, darker songs at the end of the disc, however, were recorded later at another site — with vocal contributions from Sarah McLachlan (who was not universally known at the time) — and those tracks give a clue as to where the band was headed on its next record.
Indeed, 1995’s Nowhere To Here plunged into more ethereal sonic moods and textures than anything the band had ever done before. Though it was also recorded at Keelor’s farm, there was none of the summer-breezy ease that had dominated Five Days In July. McLachlan guested again, this time on three songs. The crowning touch was the eight-minute closing track “Flaming Bed”, a deathly dirge Keelor says was inspired by waking up at his farm one night to discover the mattress he was sleeping on had caught fire. In a song-by-song quote sheet issued at the time of the album’s release, Keelor described the scene in flatly mystical terms: “I realized that the fire had awoken me because she wanted to consummate her relationship with me. But she knew that for our spirits to entwine it would kill my flesh, so she sacrificed herself, like a Shakespearean tragedy. To love me she would have to kill me, so she gave herself.”
A far cry from the guy who on Casino’s “What Am I Doing Here” pondered, simply, “I stand in front of this Ferris wheel/And I wonder what am I doing here?” If Pete Anderson thought Diamond Mine was a struggle to get through, he hadn’t heard nothin’ yet.
Then again, Keelor’s solo debut Gone, released on Warner Canada earlier this year, took the moodiness to an entirely different level. “If you had a hard time getting through Nowhere To Here, this may be a real challenge; it’s like watching spit go down a window,” Keelor cracks. “A lot of it’s just me and a nylon-string guitar.” It’s also an even more pronounced collaboration with McLachlan; she appears on six of the album’s 10 tracks, not just as a vocalist this time but also playing piano. Other non-Blue-Rodeo-like instrumentation on the disc includes cello and tabla.
“I’d been to India, and when I got back I just felt like doing something that was outside of the band, just for my own sanity,” Keelor explained. “I just showed up at a friend of mine’s place, and I didn’t really have any idea what sort of record I wanted to make; I just thought I would try it and see what happened.”
Cuddy has also recently completed a solo project, likely to be released sometime next year (and unlike Keelor’s album, Cuddy’s disc probably will be released in the U.S. as well, though the specifics haven’t been worked out yet). Cuddy describes it as “a little more countrified than Blue Rodeo, and a little more personal.”
Among the album’s guest contributors, intriguingly, are Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett, who contribute vocals and banjo to a country tune called “I’ll Make Believe She’s You.” Cuddy explained that it was all sort of a happy accident, with Blue Rodeo bassist Bazil Donovan luring Tweedy and Bennett down to the studio one night after Wilco had played a promotional gig in Toronto. “Bazil phoned me from their gig and said, ‘I think I’ll ask Jeff and Jay to cut the country song with us.’ And I said, ‘Okay, that’s fine,’ because I knew that it would never happen — getting somebody to record something while they’re in town doing a promo thing. But Baz is very persuasive, and sure enough, half an hour later, he calls back and says, ‘Okay, we’ll be down in an hour.’ So we put a band together real quick, and they came down around midnight, and we just sat and played. It was really simple and easy; it was just a very pleasant musical moment. But it definitely is part of the heart of my record.”
Cuddy adds that the serendipitous session “was really good timing for me, because I had been very influenced by Being There [Wilco’s most recent record]. I had listened to it a lot, and I really had dug where it had gone, how it had brought in psychedelia, and different kinds of elements that I was really mesmerized by.”
Donovan’s role in arranging that rendezvous seems somewhat symbolic of his role in Blue Rodeo. Probably the most ardent country-rock fan in the band — he lists the Burrito Brothers’ Gilded Palace Of Sin among his five “desert island discs” on the band’s web page — he also has recently been moonlighting with another Toronto roots outfit called Crybaby. A July weekend in Toronto found him playing Saturday night at a cozy little hideaway called Ted’s Collision, bookended by Friday and Sunday gigs with Blue Rodeo in front of a few thousand people at Fort York, a historic site and outdoor park in downtown Toronto.
With the CN Tower, the world’s tallest building, looming over the proceedings just a mile or so away, and with a lineup featuring Canadian pals the Skydiggers, Oh Susanna and Great Big Sea as well as American guests Victoria Williams (on Friday) and Steve Earle (on Sunday), the Fort York gigs were an ideal hometown kickoff for Tremolo. As they crank out a couple hours of material from throughout their career, one is reminded just how many good songs this band has written, while the tightness of their performance testifies to all that they’ve been through together.
As they wind things down for the encore, Cuddy croons out “Falling Down Blue”, a tender ballad from the new album, seemingly content to let the crowd down easy at the end of the night….Uh, not quite. It was all just a setup for that final punch, a glorious, thrashing release, Glenn Milchem literally tumbling through his drums as Keelor shouts out the final words of the night:
Let’s go kick over tombstones
In the graveyard of my heart.
No Depression co-editor Peter Blackstock likes quite a few Canadian bands but, sadly, has never heard Stompin’ Tom Connors.