Blue Rodeo / Oh Susanna – Cat’s Cradle (Carrboro, NC)
For a number of years, the names Graham Parker, Alejandro Escovedo, and Blue Rodeo were at the top of the list of solo artists and bands I’d long admired but had never seen perform. However, since 1997 I’ve caught Parker three times and Escovedo at least a half dozen, but until this calm September night, no Blue Rodeo.
Fellow Canadian Oh Susanna (a.k.a. Suzie Ungerleider) and her band opened, calling on her new self-titled album for six of their nine songs. During her introduction of the proudly Stonesy “Right By Your Side”, Ungerleider revealed her teen-years fascination with Mick Jagger, clarifying that “I didn’t want to sleep with him; I wanted to be him.” Two other icon nods followed, via a drowsy cover of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” and a set-closing take on Otis Redding’s “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember”. The latter seemed a perfect segue into the songs from Blue Rodeo’s latest album, the Stax-inspired Palace Of Gold.
Blue Rodeo, however, put that transition on hold by waiting until their ninth song to mine Palace Of Gold (for the insta-classic “Homeward Bound Angels”). Ultimately they opted for a three-fourths back-catalog to one-fourth new stuff formula.
The band’s dual vocalists and songwriters, Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor, have been playing together for 25 years, and you don’t log that much stage time without getting pretty good at what you do. Their road-honed smarts were apparent from the start as they opened with “Til I Am Myself Again”, their biggest single in the states, and followed it with “Five Days In May” from Five Days In July, their biggest album in the states.
They’ve got the dynamics thing down as well, with Cuddy primarily taking the lead on the perkier stuff (“Walk Like You Don’t Mind”) and the soulful ballads (“Bulletproof”), while Keelor handled the brooding numbers (“Diamond Mine” and “Rage”, dedicated to the late Keith Whittaker of Canadian punkers the Demics). “Heart Like Mine”, taken from the band’s 1987 debut Outskirts, displayed the best of all worlds with an a cappella opening that led into the hookiest of roots-rock and, some seven minutes later, a blistering coda.
Because the band, generally a sextet, was traveling as a four-piece (with occasional support from Oh Susanna guitarist Luke Doucet), I found myself mentally adding a horn section here, some accordion there. But Cuddy, Keelor, bassist Bazil Donovan (who pulled double-duty this night with both the opener and the headliner), and elbows-flying drummer Glenn Milchem sought to fill any holes with sing-alongs, stories, and impressive energy.
Had I known that the band was this engaging and, well, rocking in concert, I would have made arrangements long ago to transport my sorry self to Toronto or wherever necessary. A woman standing next to me had driven from Ottawa to see Blue Rodeo and was off the next day to Louisville for their next show, mainly for the opportunity to see them in clubs with a couple hundred people instead of arenas with thousands in their homeland. With the night-capping version of the epic “Lost Together” still echoing, I was tempted to stow away.