25 reasons to love Blue Rodeo
Blue Rodeo arrive on the red carpet at the 2012 JUNO Awards in Ottawa on April 1. Photo: CARAS
In the quarter century since they released their groundbreaking debut album “Outskirts,” ace roots-rockers Blue Rodeo have rarely made a misstep, musically or otherwise. Despite multiple lineup changes, a shape-shifting industry and a hot-cold relationship with commercial radio - which has never seemed able to grasp the band’s musically inclusive approach – the combo has consistently issued great albums while emerging as cultural ambassadors of the highest order. As the quintet readies to celebrate its silver anniversary with a cross-Canada tour launching January 2, we tally 25 reasons Blue Rodeo still matters.
Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor
Blue Rodeo’s core songwriting (and guitar playing and singing) duo is the closest thing Canada has to a Lennon and McCartney or Simon and Garfunkel although miles more prolific. It’s hard to imagine the group carrying on in the absence of either. Trivia: Cuddy began playing guitar because he wanted to be like country great Roy Rogers.
The 1987 album that got the ball rolling (see evergreen hits including “Try,” “Heart Like Mine” and “Rose-Coloured Glasses”) still sounds as fresh as it did when Brian Mulroney was Canada's top political dog and “The Simpsons” were crudely drawn shorts on “The Tracey Ullman Show.”
Like Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor, Blue Rodeo’s righteous bass slapper has been rocking rumps since the very beginning, and he’s as powerful today as ever. Trivia: Though born in Halifax, Donovan is the only member of the band that grew up in hometown Toronto.
The combo’s stunning and quietly confident 1989 release and follow-up to their ‘87 debut showed that singer/songwriters Cuddy and Keelor really had captured lightning in a bottle.
BR’s drummer since the early 1990s, Milchem doesn’t just lay down the backbeat; he provides the muscle that keeps the quintet chugging show after show, year after year. Trivia: Glenn Milchem’s twin brother, John Milchem, is also a musician.
Blue Rodeo entered the 1990s with this release which brought the classic track “Til I Am Myself Again” to the masses. The disc is also a stellar showcase of former keyboardist Bob Wiseman.
Nobody coaxes longing from steel guitar quite like Egan, who was thisclose to quitting music altogether when Jim Cuddy persuaded him to join the storied ranks of Blue Rodeo. Egan has never looked back. Trivia: Egan once played with Johnny Cash.
Though not laden with radio hits, many hardcore Blue Rodeo fans point to this 1992 release as their very best and it’s hard to argue. The disc was Bob Wiseman's last album with the band, and was the first to feature new drummer Glenn Milchem plus former steel guitar player Kim Deschamps.
His time with the band was relatively short, but drummer Anderson’s contribution to the evolving sound and emergence of Blue Rodeo cannot be understated. For that, we tip the hat.
“Five Days in July”
From 1993 came this eclectic album (see "5 Days in May", "Hasn't Hit Me Yet" and "Bad Timing"). Recorded at singer/guitarist Greg Keelor's farm in Southern Ontario in July 1992, it is Blue Rodeo’s most commercially successful album (half-a-million copies sold and counting).
Sure, Blue Rodeo regularly records great albums but it’s during gigs that the band really snaps to life. Watching the chemistry between the players as they swing between mournful ballads, effervescent pop and honky tonk-corkers is kind of like watching sunrises: it just never gets old.
"Nowhere to Here"
Album number six, which dropped in 1995 and features guest Sarah McLachlan, ably demonstrated that no single genre could pin Blue Rodeo in place. Eclectic and fearless, Keelor and Cuddy’s 12 tracks span the breadth of their stylistic ambition.
Fitting for a band with a quarter century worth of history behind them, Blue Rodeo has released three live albums - 1999's "Just Like a Vacation," 2006's "Blue Rodeo Live in Stratford" and 2008's "Blue Road," the latter complemented by a Chris Mills-directed documentary featuring behind-the-scenes and concert footage from the band’s “Small Miracles” tour. For completists, it doesn’t get richer than that.
Canadian Music Hall of Fame
In April 2012, Blue Rodeo joined the best of the best of Canadian music – Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Bryan Adams, Daniel Lanois, Gordon Lightfoot, the Guess Who, the Band, Bruce Cockburn and Joni Mitchell, to name a few – in the storied Canadian Music Hall of Fame. They also have a star on Canada's Walk of Fame in Toronto. So yeah, they’re kind of a big deal.
Of 1997’s “Tremelo,” All Music Guide reckoned it was “a looser, more jam-oriented record that focused on spontaneity over careful songcraft” which made it the perfect source material for the live interpretation that naturally followed.
Given the heaps of talent in evidence with each Blue Rodeo member, it’s hardly surprising they’ve pursued solo projects during band down-times. Both Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor have issued excellent solo records (notably “All in Time” and “Gone,” respectively) while drummer Glenn Milchem has pursued his indie rock impulses with the Swallows. Whatever they’re selling, we’ll take it.
“The Days in Between”
A new decade ushered in another stellar studio release, the band’s eighth overall. And while Cuddy and Keelor didn’t blaze new trails with “The Days in Between,” they ably demonstrated that solid songwriting and pitch-perfect vocal harmonies are always in style.
Admittedly, there isn’t always a correlation between industry awards and talent. But sometimes there is and that is clearly the case with our heroes, who have racked up a staggering 11 Juno Awards in their three-decade-long career. That’s a lot of iron on the mantel.
“Palace of Gold”
The first release to feature onetime Wilco member Bob Egan, this 2002 effort was notable on several fronts. As AMG notes, “Having built their own studio, the band members took the time to record in a comfortable, relaxed manner in which they could workshop tunes at their leisure. This newly found freedom allowed them to experiment with the addition of strings and horns on several tracks, a move they had taken tentative stabs at before.” The cover is pretty nifty, too.
It’s hard to think of a better group of guys representing Canada abroad than Blue Rodeo. Smart, funny, talented, self-deprecating, altruistic, sane and polite, the quintet has it all. You DO want the world to know there is more to us than hockey and Justin Bieber, right?
“Are You Ready”
Studio album number 10 boasts all the hallmarks of great Blue Rodeo discs plus a killer lineup of guest musicians and (awww) a song written for Cuddy’s wife, Rena. His plaintive, silvery voice isn’t half-bad either.
“Blue Rodeo 1987–1993”
No band that has been around in excess of 25 years can get by without issuing a vault-mining retrospective and this is it. As the band notes on its website, the set “contains a treasure trove of material for fans including remastered versions of the band's first five studio albums, unreleased music such as demos for ‘Casino,’ studio outtakes and a completely remixed version of ‘Outskirts,’ done by Greg himself… plus a 44-page booklet with rare photos.” Count us in.
Once again we find ourselves quoting the good folks at AMG about this release from 2007: “It's, well, a small miracle that “Small Miracles” sounds this consistently fresh and inspired coming 20 years after Blue Rodeo's debut.” Nuff said.
Highly generous with their time and talent, the Blue Rodeo guys have collaborated with some of the country’s best and brightest including (but not limited to) Sarah McLachlan, Great Big Sea, The Sadies, Skydiggers, Crash Vegas, and Sarah Harmer.
“The Things We Left Behind”
The band’s two-disc set from 2009 is a fitting finale as it captures the group on top of their game just as they’re about to hit the road yet again. We can’t think of anyone we’d rather see and hear. Cheers to 25 more years!