Canadian Darlings, Blue Rodeo, Reflect on Their Storied Career
Since she was young, my daughter Kristin has firmly stated that her wedding would be on the shoreline of Block Island with Blue Rodeo entertaining, and even now, at age 24, she keeps hinting. She doesn’t want to hear that the prolific Canadian band — which just released an excellent new album, 1000 Arms — may be too big to play a wedding, and the cost would likely be prohibitive.
I mention this to Blue Rodeo co-founder Jim Cuddy during a phone interview from his home in Toronto, and he laughs heartily. “That’s pretty good, that’s funny,” he says. “Well, you never know. I’ll go to Block Island.”
For Cuddy, whose band completed a short U.S. tour this week (Nov. 22 at New York’s City Winery), it would be a brave return to the scenic, serene island without a traffic light about 12 miles from the Rhode Island mainland. He went there once with his wife, actress Rena Polley, and he’ll, unfortunately, never forget it.
“It’s funny,” Cuddy says, “because that’s the first time in my life that I got seasick. That ferry ride over was unbelievable. I was so fucking sick. When we got to the hotel, my wife said that happens all the time. If there hadn’t been a plane back, I‘d still be there. Oh, my god. But, yeah, a beautiful place.”
On North America’s opposite coast on a much bigger Canadian island more than 3,400 miles west of Block Island, I discovered the magic of Blue Rodeo’s roots-rock music in the late 1990s. Driving in Vancouver Island’s Pacific Rim National Park Reserve — one of the continent’s most remote and beautiful places — I ran out of music to play in my rental car, and it was making Paul Rogers, a friend and Flying Burrito Brothers fan from Connecticut, nuts.
Too many times we had played the same CDs that I brought with me after getting off a plane in Seattle, sightseeing in Washington, taking a ferry to Victoria and then embarking on a marathon drive to the reserve. So I strode into a shop in the nearby town of Tofino and, with a very limited number of choices to choose from — mostly Top 40 drivel — bought Blue Rodeo’s The Days in Between.
I knew almost nothing then about the Ontario-based band. All I knew is that they were from Canada and had gotten some good reviews. Paul and I immediately, though, were taken by The Days in Between and, unlike everything else I had brought, didn’t mind playing the album over and over and over again.
When we returned home to the USA, we noticed that Blue Rodeo was playing at Mercury Lounge, a club in Manhattan that’s basically one small room without seats. Paul and I stood against the wall and were blown away by the brilliance of Blue Rodeo’s live set. The band rocked the rafters, mixing in just the right dose of country and folk. The song lyrics were great, Blue Rodeo had two terrific lead singers, guitarists and songwriters — Cuddy and co-founder Greg Keelor — and their two-part harmonies were sublime. We felt we had discovered a band with the chops of the Band, the Byrds, and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
We also were surprised that the Mercury Lounge was mostly filled with Canadians who were living in, or visiting, New York, and they knew the lyrics, often singing along with Cuddy and Keelor. The audience even broke into the Canadian national anthem between songs and waved a Canadian flag. Cuddy good-naturedly expressed his displeasure that the room wasn’t dominated by Americans whom the band thought they had come to entertain.
Cuddy tells me he remembers the Mercury Lounge show.
“Those were the days,” he says, “when all the mid-‘80s Canadian bands of our vintage got opportunities to play around the world. We found we were playing to audiences that were at least half to three-quarters Canadian. In the beginning, we thought: ‘Why did we come all this way to play for Canadians?’ You have to be polite about it, though. Ultimately, that became a great thing. You realize Canadians are big travelers living and working, or just traveling, in other places.
“We were the first generation of bands that really, really meant a lot to Canadian people. Prior to that, you sometimes wouldn’t even know if the band was Canadian. Like the Guess Who or everybody signed in America, they would come back to our country, and we just thought they were stars. But we were sort of the era of the Tragically Hip, k.d. lang, 54-40 and Cowboy Junkies. Everybody embraced them because they were Canadian. Whatever success they had in the rest of the world was a bonus. The audience loved the fact they were reflective of their own lives. Then it became a kind of celebration. Once you accepted it — going to New York City or all the way to L.A. and playing for a lot of Canadians — it became something we liked, and it mattered a little less that Americans were or weren’t picking up on it. The room was full of people who were getting a little bit of a taste of home that they needed. We felt like we were providing a public service.”
While Blue Rodeo played small clubs in the U.S., their popularity soared in Canada, and they progressed from playing clubs to theaters and even bigger venues. They and other Canadian bands got the Canadian public to stop thinking only about their country’s artists who consorted with famous people from other countries.
“By the time the mid-’80s rolled around, people didn’t care,” Cuddy says. “They wanted to embrace the bands they had seen at their local college or bar. It was a very emotional thing. People wouldn’t have hauled out a Canadian flag 10 years before that. It would have been too corny, too stupid. It did represent a big change in the national psyche. But when we got bigger — when we left the bar scene and started playing theaters — people were kind of resentful because they felt they lost possession of you.”
After the Mercury Lounge club show, I was hooked, and I think Paul and I thought we might be the only Connecticut residents who knew the band. I caught nearly every subsequent show in small venues in New York, saw the band play at a town park in Vermont and a Virginia club, and began religiously playing Blue Rodeo albums, particularly the band’s 1994 masterpiece Five Days in July, at home in Newtown.
To my surprise, my daughter and son, Kristin and Ben, who were both singers and high school stage performers, started requesting me to play Blue Rodeo albums and put the band’s songs on their iPods. Except for the Beatles and Blue Rodeo, they generally ignored the artists I played and filled their playlists with their own discoveries or more contemporary artists. They basically grew up thinking that Blue Rodeo’s music is on the same plane as the Beatles. Yes, there will never be a band like the Beatles — a band with incredible creativity and artistry that changed the face of rock and pop music. But Blue Rodeo CDs get more spins at my house, and the group’s songs are the ones that trigger family sing-alongs in the car and praise from guests who had never previously heard the name of the band.
Cuddy says he and Keelor “are Beatles freaks,” and he breaks into laughter when told that Blue Rodeo and the Beatles have been considered on the same plane. He says his favorite artist is Paul McCartney, then Jackson Browne, and “there would be a lot of people in the third slot.”
The music of Leonard Cohen — the Canadian poet and musician who died this month — also means a lot to Cuddy, and he says Cohen was “great” on his last tour.
Concerts by McCartney and another Canadian, Neil Young, are the ones, though, he considers the best he has seen.
The McCartney show, Cuddy says, was “about four years ago” at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. “I was flabbergasted by how good that was.”
The Neil Young performance was in Arizona at an outdoor amphitheater many years ago. “He probably only did 10 songs, but they were epics. I could hardly speak after that one.”
Cuddy was most likely referring to Young’s appearance at the Verde Valley Benefit at the Hamilton Warren Amphitheater in Sedona on Oct. 22, 1994. Young played 11 songs, including his classic “Cortez The Killer,” and closed the show with “Helpless.”
He remembers one other unforgettable concert. “There’s a band called the Skydiggers in Canada,” he says. “They do a Christmas concert — two nights in December each year. Two years ago I was at their show, and they, to me, are the most underrated band in Canada. Their records are all strong, their performances are strong, and that night was just perfect. There wasn’t too much Christmas. They did their songs and had a few guests. It was probably one of the top five shows I have ever seen.”
Cuddy says the most influential concert he ever saw was in New York City where he and Keelor lived from 1981-1984 before returning to Toronto and launching Blue Rodeo.
“Greg and my girlfriend, who was in acting school and became my wife that year, had had enough, but I absolutely loved New York and left kicking and screaming,” Cuddy says. “Greg and I went to a concert (before they left New York) that was very important to us becoming Blue Rodeo. We had a band called Fly To France — a very unfortunate name. We did all kinds of stuff, like bands did then. We did ska, reggae, pop, blah-blah-blah and New Wavey stuff. It was all part of learning, but none of it was very natural. Then we went to see Los Lobos and NRBQ at Irving Plaza. NRBQ opened the show, and we were a little bit high. We had always read about NRBQ — they were always in The Voice as the band you had to see. We had never seen them before. They were absolutely amazing, and they also had that kind of unpredictability. Because we were a little high, we didn’t always understand if they meant something or not.
“There was one point when Terry Adams picked up a trumpet and started to play a solo. Initially, we thought, that is ‘pretty outside.’ Then it dawned on us, can he play trumpet, or is he just fucking around? It was so funny. Yet, they were an incredibly accomplished band. They would just flow from one thing to another. They did all these abstract things. They weren’t gimmicky — they were truly astounding musicians. Then we saw Los Lobos who were good but a little bit restrictive and uptight. It was great music, though. It was a big night for us because we walked away thinking we need to get back to strumming and playing guitars — doing what we do naturally.”
All those artists have a certain magnetism, and so does Blue Rodeo. So what is the magic of Blue Rodeo?
“We dabble in this great pool of music,” Cuddy says. “Roots is an amazing form of music. You can reflect other artists you like, you can quote lyrics, you can borrow melodies, you can use others’ little licks. It’s amazing. People have been sharing this form of music for years. Still, you can contemporize it and make it your own. Right from the beginning, we added an improvisational level that was a little different from other musicians, so that allowed us to do some more jazzy things.
“There is this incredible shared experience with our audience. I think it had so much to do with an awakening of who we [Canadians] were as a people. Somehow, Blue Rodeo did part of the soundtrack of that. We often sing ‘Hasn’t Hit Me Yet’ [a song on the Five Days in July album] as a closer. When people sing along to that line, ‘in the middle of Lake Ontario’ — even if they are singing it in other provinces — there is some sense of swelling of pride in them that it is a local reference. There is something so glorious about finally having a reference that’s part of your own life as opposed to the Jersey Shore, the Jersey Turnpike or the Mersey river — all these things we have been singing about since we were kids but were not really part of.”
“Hey, hey, I guess it hasn’t hit me yet
I fell through this crack andI kind of lost my head
I stand transfixed before this streetlight
Watching the snow fall on this cold December night
And out in the middle of Lake Ontario.”
The voices of Cuddy and Keelor are also a major part of the magic, so I ask Cuddy whether it’s crazy to ask why their voices work so well together.
“No, I don’t think it’s a crazy question,” he replies. “One of the main parts of the new record was (producer) Tim Vesely. We did our Christmas record with him, too. He’s a very quiet guy. He doesn’t offer a lot, but when he does, it’s very poignant. He said: ‘I was listening to your earlier records, and you two have to sing more together.’ We said: ‘What are you talking about? We always sing together.’ He said, ‘Well, not the way you used to.’ We listened and thought he was right.
“When we first started, it was just the two of us, and we would try to think of all the different ways to utilize our voices. We didn’t stack vocals or double-track a bunch of stuff. We just used our two vocals. So getting back to that — just the direct harmony of one guy on top of the other or a call and response — it was really nice to put those characteristics back.
“Our range is very close which is kind of weird,” Cuddy explains. “People would automatically think I have a higher voice, and Greg has a lower voice. Certainly, he is stronger in the lower range, and I am stronger in the higher. Because we have similar ranges, we can sing pretty close to each other, but we sound entirely different. My voice is the keening tenor, and his has a lot more gravel to it. We have always known that we could sing together. We used to strum guitars when I was in university, and we always recognized that our voices went well together.”
Bass player Bazil Donovan — Blue Rodeo’s third original member — has also been a key component in the band. Donovan, who was born in Nova Scotia and raised in Toronto, joined the band in 1984 after answering a magazine ad that said: “If you’ve dropped acid at least 20 times, lost 3 or 4 years to booze and are looking good and can still manage to keep time, call Jim or Greg.”
Cuddy says Donovan is “an extraordinary musician — one of the best bass players I have ever experienced. He can do all kinds of things. He can change the tone of the music by just the way he plucks the strings.
“He is also very steady, open and honest. His musical assessments are: ‘That’s bullshit, or that’s great.’ He loves music. Other than his family, his music is his whole life. He is a huge part of the band. We couldn’t get over the loss of Bazil.”
Drummer Glenn Milchem has been in the band for more than two decades.
“Glenn is a fantastic drummer,” Cuddy says. “When Glenn first joined the band, he was probably too strong, too powerful of a drummer for us. What evolved was a very musical drummer. He started with us during Lost Together and then he made Five Days in July. I think that brought out an element of drumming we never left behind. We realized he could be really orchestral and really musical without pounding the shit out of the drums. He is a very strong personality. He and Greg are very similar. When you are in the studio doing a new song — and you’re a little self-conscious about it — Glenn is zeroing in. He’s listening, he’s developing his part and he might ask you about the lyric later. That is very important to building a confident foundation to a song. Glenn is pretty huge in the band, too.”
The band’s newest members, lead guitarist Colin Cripps and pianist Michael Boguski, have fit right into the band’s rootsy, driving rock and alt-country sound. Cripps has been ripping off blistering Blue Rodeo solos for about three years, doing his own thing and replicating the wild, electric solos that Keelor invented before tinnitus forced him to switch to an acoustic guitar. Boguski, who joined the band in 2009, adds a beautiful touch to many songs and his exhilarating solos have often made the keys stand on end.
Long-time pedal steel player Bob Egan recently left the band, and Blue Rodeo has decided to move forward with six, instead of seven, members. Cuddy says the band will hire a pedal steel player whenever it wishes for future shows. Egan, a Minnesotan and former member of Wilco who played with Blue Rodeo for 17 years, decided to accept a job in a library in Kitchener, Ontario, where he oversees a new digital media studio.
“Bob’s a big loss,” Cuddy says. “It was good having an American in the band, too. We are not replacing him.”
The Blue Rodeo roster has shuffled a bit in the past 20 years, but, unlike most bands, Blue Rodeo hasn’t once broken up since it began in the mid-1980s. Cuddy gives Donovan a lot of the credit for this.
When the band had problems, Cuddy says, Donovan would say, “I’m in it for the long haul.” That’s something the band rallied around, Cuddy says, and it certainly has defined the amazing longevity of the Cuddy-Keelor partnership. They met in 1971, were friends in high school and have played together in bands since 1978.
“Greg is fiercely original,” Cuddy says. “Greg could barely play guitar when he started writing his own songs. It was almost comical. He couldn’t even play another song, but he wrote a song, and it was pretty good. He never wanted to be anything but an original band. When we started, people would say ‘why don’t you throw some covers in.’ I probably would have been more malleable, but he didn’t want any of that. He always wanted to be an original band. Greg has always strived for that, and that has helped me a lot, because it has pushed me to be more original, to be my own voice. Greg’s ideas sometimes come out in rough form. I’m a refiner. That’s a good combination, and we have such good harmonies. There’s a very natural musical blend.
“If you are going in a band 30-some years, you’re going to go through some really, really bad times. There are some times when you really want to get the fuck away from each other. Somehow we have been able to always look each other in the eye, describe to each other what the problems are and say to each other that we want to keep going. That’s all it takes in a band — just this will to keep going. You can find ways of doing it, just like you find ways in any long-term relationship. It’s always been worth it to us. We always have liked playing music.
“We also share — and this is very important — a very similar sense of humor. It’s not a very nice sense of humor, it’s pretty caustic and it’s pretty critical. Sometimes it’s a relief to get back around each other because the world is a little too nice for that sense of humor. Sometimes it’s such a relief for me to get back to Greg, and he’ll say something that’s so fucking offside. It makes me laugh, and I feel like I can be myself again. For a lot of reasons, we have always wanted to continue.”
The new album 1000 Arms, Blue Rodeo’s 14th studio album, is the most recent chapter in that continuation.
“At this stage of the game, the album means keeping going,” says the 61-year-old Cuddy. “What we have internally we have to keep showing externally. We don’t find it difficult to keep going, keep playing and writing a new record. We always talk about it a year in advance. This time, there was talk that we would do a kind of Brinsley Schwarz, late ‘70s British pub rock record. We wanted more energetic songs. We tried to imitate some of the sounds of that era, but it didn’t sound like us, and we kind of transformed it to our own rootsy sound. That’s the reason the songs have a little more get-up-and-go than songs on our prior records.
“I write my own songs, but, in the studio, I am trying to listen to and figure out Greg’s songs — how far back he’s going in his memory to do these songs or are they about contemporary things in his life. We are lucky that we consciously chose this form of music because you can write very contemporized lyrics. You don’t have to write about being a teenager or the anxiety of being a young person. If you want to write about where we’re you are now — we’re all 60-plus — that’s fine. I kind of like that about it. The record is about impressions of the world as we see it at our current stage of maturity.”
Many Blue Rodeo fans point to Five Days in July as their favorite Blue Rodeo record, and the albums’ songs always generate the loudest live sing-alongs.
“Five Days in July was a watershed moment,” Cuddy says. “We did it for very practical reasons. The Lost Together tour was so loud. My ears were inflamed. We were surprised by the power. It was a sales peak second best-selling record behind Outskirts.”
“Bad Timing” is Cuddy’s favorite song on the record. “It’s certainly one of those songs that when I wrote it, and it was written pretty quickly, I thought ‘that’s a good song.’ They don’t always come like that.
Another favorite that he wrote is “One More Night” from 2009’s Things We Left Behind album. “I thought that was a good, sort of Richard Cory take,” Cuddy says.
Cuddy’s favorite song to sing live is “Try” from Outskirts, Blue Rodeo’s 1987 debut album.
“I had to sing it so much that I got totally turned off by it,” he says. “I took one full year off of it in the mid-1990s. By the time I came back, I recognized how much it meant to people and that it was really enjoyable to sing. It’s a great test. You cannot sing that song if you haven’t been singing for awhile and you’ve let your voice get out of shape. I had an operation on my voice about eight years ago to remove polyps from my vocal cords, and I don’t ever let my voice get out shape anymore. Try is a lot of fun and is significant to me because of the sonorous nature of it — not necessarily because of the lyrics.
“There are songs that you get fatigued with. You try to avoid those. Every song transports me to some person, incident or thing I have written about. If I don’t get transported anymore, I realize it’s time to put that song on hold for a little while. You can’t do a good job unless you’re 100 percent absorbed by the song. Ninety percent of the time I am fully absorbed by all the songs, Greg’s songs as well.”
Keelor and Cuddy have written so many top-notch tunes, but the songs — and even the name Blue Rodeo — are unknown to most U.S. music aficionados.
Cuddy says Blue Rodeo has come to realize the reasons why that happened to their band and other talented ‘80s bands in the post-punk and post-New Wave era.
“A lot of late ‘80s bands were very unique,” he says. “None of us thought we were going to get signed by a record company, so we just were what we were. People said, ‘You can’t have two singers, what are you?, you can’t be country or you can’t be rock.’ Those impediments didn’t exist in Canada. It was better for us to just keep going and not really worry about the States. No one ever got Gord Downie [of the Tragically Hip], but we [Canadians] got Gord Downie. It was no problem for us.
“The one thing that pisses me off, I must admit, is that whenever I see some article about country rock or this roots stuff we play, we are never mentioned,” Cuddy says. “I know that is not true, and we have had an influence on other bands out there. Somebody said they were at a panel in Nashville, and they played a song. Everybody liked it except one person who said it sounds too much like the Avett Brothers. It brought the house down. The fucking Avett Brothers were children when we started, You can’t tell me they have never heard of us. You can’t play this form of music and not know us.”
Some vindication may have come seven or eight years ago before a huge amphitheater crowd in Toronto when Kris Kristofferson warmed up for Blue Rodeo. Cuddy says it’s one of his greatest rock memories.
“Kris Kristofferson played in front of us, joined us for some songs and came out for the encore and sang ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.’ I am just blissed out. I have seen pictures of myself, and I am way oversmiling and constantly hugging him. He leans over at one point with a crowd of 10,000 strong and says, ‘You know Jim, sometimes the good guys win.’ I thought ‘oh, my god, that’s the greatest thing that’s ever been said to me about this music.’ I think he meant it. I think he felt ‘you guys are good, and this crowd appreciates it.’”
For a taste of the brilliance of Blue Rodeo’s music and the small town of Tofino on Vancouver Island, where I first discovered the band, check out this YouTube video below.