Five Days in July Keeps Following Me Around
There’s been a lot of celebration for Blue Rodeo’s seminal album, Five Days in July, this summer. This was initiated by the Winnipeg Folk Festival, who asked the band to play the album in its entirety when they appeared at the festival in early July. Inspired by the request and by frontman Greg Keelor’s recent ear trouble, Blue Rodeo decided to feature the largely acoustic album, or at least excerpts of it, at most of the shows they played over the summer. Five Days is considered by many to be one of the top Canadian albums of all time: it reached Number 13 on Bob Mersereau’s list and its sweet sensibility, delicate arrangements, and lush sonority showcase some of the band’s finest playing and suggest the ideal of a gentle summer night somewhere in the Canadian wilderness.
To be honest, I’m not crazy about the album. Yet, it seems to follow me around, and has played a significant role in some of my major life events. Why can’t I escape it?
I first heard the record in a moment that cemented the relationship between me and my best friend. She played the piano solo from “Cynthia” to cheer me up on a bad high school day, and I had to admit that it worked (it still does). That friendship survived the cattiness endemic to teenage female life, our transition through university, several moves to different cities, numerous bad romantic partners that we made no secret of disapproving, and it continues today. We celebrate our “anniversary” every fall, realizing this year that the friendship started the same year that Five Days was released.
Fast forward to 1997, when I still held birthday parties in my parents’ backyard as a precursor to spending the rest of the night at the bar. These were also the days when friends felt obliged to bring a gift if you were having a birthday party. Word had gotten around that despite my ballooning Blue Rodeo obsession, I did not yet own a copy of Five Days. I didn’t particularly want it, having heard all the tracks many times on my parents’ stereo and on the radio. I was really hoping for a copy of their latest, Tremolo.
I got five copies of Five Days in July that day. No copies of Tremolo.
Last summer, my partner spent several months in Japan doing research. When he returned, we went through an awkward period of readjusting to each other and learning to live together. It wasn’t easy. About three weeks after his return, we started to realize how fun it was to live together and we went to a free concert at the Don Mills Shopping Centre in Toronto that featured Melanie Doane and Jim Cuddy. We took the above-mentioned best friend and her mother. Now, I’m not a fan of the song “Five Days in May,” but I readied myself for its inevitable appearance in Cuddy’s set.
When he got to it, I suddenly listened with fresh ears. How could the song so perfectly describe me and my man?
“Somehow they stayed that way/For those five days in May/Made all the stars around them shine” (When we started dating, he came over to my house one day in May and didn’t leave for a week. Honestly, I was a bit worried that he was hanging around so much, but he turned out to be okay.)
And what beautiful lyrics for anyone who discovers love after a long period of being alone (likely the reason for its ubiquitous appeal):
Sometimes the world begins to set you up on your feet again
And it wipes the tears from your eyes
How will you ever know the way that circumstances go
It’s going to hit you by surprise
But I know my past, you were there
In everything I’ve done
You are the one.
I remember thinking, hmmm, all of these lines apply to us and how I feel about this person.
The next day, my guy was preparing lunch and I was lying on the couch. He sat down to eat and I sat up and said, “What do you think about getting married?” Turns out he’d already proposed in a sneaky way and I was too stupid to notice. So somehow, FDIJ worked its way into my life, just as sneakily as that proposal, making me think that it was my idea to get married. (BTW, thanks for that, Blue Rodeo, and I’m sorry, but we did not end up using the song at the wedding.)
I did like FDIJ when I first heard it in high school and it is certainly the album that started what became, at times, a borderline obsession with Blue Rodeo for me. But as I started to listen to their other material, I never bothered to put Five Days into my stereo. Compared to the fun impenetrability of Diamond Mine, the slick arrangements and solid songwriting on Casino, the wild ride through several genres on Lost Together, and the brief flirtation with soul on Palace of Gold, FDIJ feels a bit like a “safe” Blue Rodeo album. And if you asked the average BR fan what their favourite songs are, they might be likely to pick “Five Days in May,” “Bad Timing,” or “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet” over esoteric tracks like “The Ballad of the Dime Store Greaser and the Blonde Mona Lisa,” “Brown-Eyed Dog” (which takes several listens to get used to), “Brother Andre’s Heart,” or “Truscott” (a beautiful gem that never gets played live). That’s okay: this happens to every band, especially those that have played together for nearly 30 years, especially when they tour the festival circuit and play to a diverse crowd anxious for the songs with which it is familiar. But I don’t think I have been to a concert where “Five Days in May” hasn’t been played, and I’ve been to many.
It would be great if, since Blue Rodeo is bound by audience expectations and the longevity that their most popular album sustains, they would include some of the lesser-known tracks in the FDIJ performances. Obviously they would have done this in the concerts of the full album, but I unfortunately missed those. Wouldn’t it be great to hear the cheerful bounce of “English Bay,” or what is possibly the only cover in BR’s repertoire, Jim Cuddy’s version of Rodney Crowell’s “’Til I Gain Control Again”?
Five Days is a lovely set of songs that, 18 years after its emergence, still appeals to a national audience that is increasingly divided in its musical taste. With Canadian acts ever-growing in number, talent, and diversity, it is remarkable that Five Days’ appeal can still cross genre and generational lines. Perhaps it is the casual but meaningful reference to Canadian places: Lake Ontario in “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet,” Pyramid Lake in “Cynthia,” English Bay in (obviously) “English Bay.” Maybe it’s the hopeful romanticism that characterizes “Five Days in May,” “Head Over Heels,” or the chronological hell (as my friend calls it) subject of “Bad Timing.” Maybe the songs call to mind the sadly short Canadian summer, with light mandolin figures evoking sun-dappled trees, cool night breezes, and sitting in front of the campfire with a guitar (or, running freaked out into the house from the mad mosquitoes of the prairies).
I leave this post feeling as conflicted about the album as when I started, but I suspect most Canadians who heard its resurrection in concert this summer were pretty happy about it.