Blue Rodeo – On the way to everywhere
“Just when it seems like it’s absolutely pointless and useless to continue, there’s that little glimmer of the eternal that shines through and you realize that you’re going to make it through this thing.”
The sticker continues to hang tough on my copy of Blue Rodeo’s Lost Together even though it’s been thirteen years since the shrink wrap came off the CD. Credited to Rolling Stone/L.A. Syndicate, the sticker’s quote reads, “Blue Rodeo is a major band everywhere, only most of the world doesn’t know it yet.”
The rediscovery of that yellowing declaration in light of this fall’s Are You Ready, the Toronto band’s 12th release (counting a double live disc and a greatest hits collection) in its 20-year existence, pushed a few questions to the surface, most of them awash in the naivete of someone who’s never been in a band, never shared a van with four or five other road-whipped souls. Is it always the goal of a band to be major everywhere? If so, at what point in a band’s life do you confront the realization that it might be time to get a new goal? What is the sign that you are major everywhere anyway? White puffs of smoke appearing simultaneously from Tokyo, London, L.A., and, I don’t know, Stockholm? And what toll does all that take on a band?
Jim Cuddy elects to confront those questions with a story of his own. “It’s funny about that. I went to see U2 on Tuesday night. They’re not my favorite band, but they are good. They are a great band. But even in concert, they kind of plead with the audience that they are a great band,” Cuddy recounts, chuckling.
“I think what they’re saying to the audience is ‘We still have a lot we can do. Don’t let us go.’ You know, they sold out four shows up here, 80,000 people. How much more acceptance do you need?” He lets that rhetorical question hang in the air for a second before continuing. “I hate that in bands. I hate this desperation to be world famous. I don’t like bands or artists to be indifferent to their audience, but I like them to be indifferent to their stature, at least for the time they’re playing.”
Greg Keelor, Blue Rodeo’s other singing/songwriting/guitar-playing co-founder and co-leader, takes the questions head-on. (Drummer Glenn Milchem and keyboardist James Gray, both veterans of over a dozen years in the band, relative newcomer Bob Egan, and from-the-beginning bassist Bazil Donovan complete the lineup.) “We’d be a pretty good case study in that department,” is his opening statement. “The review in Rolling Stone of our first record was, ‘The best new band in America is from Canada.’ They gave us a rave review. And then we got great press. We just thought it was a matter of time. We thought we had it made.”
Feeling on the verge, the band piled up the tour miles. By their third record, the Pete Anderson-produced Casino, they were one of the first bands on Atlantic’s East West America imprint, and radio was paying attention. “By the time the next record came out, we were in this movie with Meryl Streep, and we thought ‘Oh, this is going to be a cinch now,'” says Keelor. “Then we toured and toured and toured, and it never really materialized. And it got to the point where it was really starting to undermine us as musicians, and sort of exhausting us emotionally and physically.”
After 1992’s Lost Together, Blue Rodeo had a more than healthy following in Canada, but world domination appeared unlikely. Keelor acknowledges a silver lining all the same. “We took a more inward turn in our songwriting and just the way of making records. We sort of said ‘Fuck it,’ and we went out to my farm and we recorded Five Days In July. And that was such a rejuvenating and joyful experience for us.”
This trend of making a record as a reaction to the previous record and its aftermath was established early on. Blue Rodeo’s second album, 1989’s Diamond Mine, was recorded by Malcolm Burn in an empty theater after the band was dissatisfied with their debut, Outskirts. “We didn’t really like the authority our producer had on Outskirts,” Keelor states. “And we didn’t even like the sound of it. It had a little bit of that ’80s snare splash. That wasn’t what we were about.”
To the band’s ears, 1990’s Casino was a “total studio album,” so they produced the next one (Lost Together) themselves. The excessive touring behind that album sent them to Keelor’s farm, where the solitude and a communal recording process yielded the band’s most hushed and pensive effort, the aforementioned Five Days In July.
And on it went, each recording in some way inspiring the next, right on up to the new Are You Ready. The band’s 2002 disc Palace Of Gold indulged Cuddy’s fascination with Stax and Keelor’s increasing interest in what he calls “fancy pop stuff” — Lee & Nancy, Bacharach & David, and the like. The album was lovingly layered, it was thick with atmosphere and horns, and it was, by design, bursting at the seams.
Last summer, Cuddy and Keelor were asked to record a song for a Gordon Lightfoot tribute, and they broke out the acoustic guitars. “All of a sudden, the sound of the acoustic guitars was so beautiful. It was so big, the way they worked together, the harmonics of the instruments together,” Cuddy recalls. “It just grabbed my attention. What we’d been trying to do with ten instruments, we could do with one.” Thus, Keelor explains, when it got down to recording Are You Ready, “we wanted to thin it out a bit, get it down so you could hear the reverbs on the electric, hear the overtones on the acoustics, because on the last one we had really filled everything up and it got a little dense.”