Blue Rodeo – Bowery Ballroom (New York City, NY)
Blue Rodeo hits the Bowery Ballroom stage with the jagged aura of a group that has bussed all over the U.S. in recent months (supporting their latest album, The Days In Between), sweeping into New York City on the back of a formidable Nor’Easter. Even the typically sunny Jim Cuddy carries himself with more gravity than usual. As he walks to his rightful position stage left, there are creases beneath his eyes, his hair is tufted, and his drab-colored western shirt hangs loosely on his lanky body. The Canadian roots-rockers’ other singer-songwriter, Greg Keelor, looks grizzled and sleepy, with cropped gray hair and a good start on a beard.
Blue Rodeo’s entrance — which really ends up more like Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope, because the group soon comes out swinging — is a stark counterpoint to the just-finished set by John Wesley Harding, a lively, chipper showman prone to sprightly anecdotes and witty banter. Where there is something utterly human about the Rodeo — the way their lyrics express wonderment and disappointment, how tonight they wear their fatigue and then transcend it — Harding comes off more as a confident, sometimes acerbic, social commentator.
As the erstwhile Englishman swings from the acoustic to rock portion of his set, he stands before his band like a pop star par excellence, one foot propped up on a monitor. Harding has weathered more than a few Elvis Costello comparisons (his early work with Attractions Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas certainly encouraged the connection), and he does have a similar voice and muscular pop sensibility, but he possesses none of Elvis’s lurking menace.
“Goth Girl”, from Harding’s latest album, The Confessions Of St. Ace, finds backing band the Radical Gentlemen in storming, power-pop mode behind the ironic lyrics (“Goth girl, what are you wearing today?/Black again!”). On “Our Lady Of The Highway”, bassist Chris Von Sneidern takes the duet role sung by Steve Earle on the album to provide a rootsier moment. It is a rollicking, tight set, the Gentlemen bolstering Harding’s acute melodic vision.
In sharp contrast to Harding’s brisk frontman professionalism (he even runs through the obligatory upbeat roll call during the last song: “…and on guitar, Mr. Kirk SWAN!”) is Blue Rodeo’s ensemble ethic, which has drawn consistent parallels to The Band. There’s a low, pervasive rumble in the audience as Keelor’s gravel and Cuddy’s sunshine begin to sail together on the harmonies of the opener, “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet”. Soon the murmur swells and is recognizable as the crowd singing along; this seems to bolster the road-weary group.
A few songs in, a sour guitar note is struck. It’s in a quiet moment, a calculated period of near silence. Who hit it is unimportant, but Cuddy’s body language expresses displeasure. He scratches the back of his head and looks at the ground as he sways in time; he swipes impatiently at his sweaty brow with his sleeve.
The incident is soon rendered unimportant, however, a sole foul note in an evening of grandeur. A few songs down the line, Cuddy, a soul singer at heart, dispels his demons by exercising his full range of chops on “Fallen From Grace”. Other striking moments follow, such as James Gray’s majestic organ solos (stirring thoughts of Garth Hudson) and Bazil Donovan’s fat, sweet bass run in the coda of “Lost Together”.
On the final song of the night — the crashing, psychedelic-tinged country rocker “Diamond Mine” — Cuddy and Keelor, absolved of their fronting duties, peel off into separate back corners of the stage while Donovan anchors the sound. Gray and the fierce-browed Glenn Milchem, with his Keith Moon-like exertions at the kit, face off to complete an intense triangle and carry the night home.