Wisdom of the Ages:

Blue Rodeo Age Gracefully

by Michael Barclay


Mother Nature has approved. For the weekend that Blue Rodeo hosted the Stardust Ball in Toronto  the first of what will hopefully be an annual event  there isn't a cloud in the sky. Organized by the band as a response to the corporatization of Toronto's waterfront venues, the two-day festival at Old Fort York was a totally pro affair from the lineup (Steve Earle, Skydiggers, Oh Susanna) to the concessions (fruit stand, healthy food, cider and premium beer on tap) to the sidestage (talented yet totally unknown Toronto artists).

The band themselves deliver a stellar careerdefining performance that makes it readily apparent why they're one of Canada's most successful bands of the last decade, both artistically and commercially. At this stage in their career it would be easy to take them for granted. It would also be a mistake.

A few days before the ball, singer/guitarist Greg Keelor tells me with typical Canadian understatement that "the band's playing pretty good these days."

That the band is, in fact, playing very well is almost surprising, considering that earlier in the conversation, Keelor confesses that they don't even bother to rehearse anymore. For other artists that might be a cause for concern, but the members of Blue Rodeo have reached the stage in their career where their musical conversations can depend as much on the unspoken as the meticulously rehearsed.

Blue Rodeo have endured twelve years, seven albums, three lineup shifts and three solo records. (Keelor's was released in February, singer/guitarist Jim Cuddy and drummer Glenn Milchem have records due later this year.) At a time when the American press seems to be rediscovering something called "alternative country rock," one listen to the new Tremolo proves that Blue Rodeo have always been masters of their game, regardless of trends or buzzwords.

Their selfconfidence was evident in their approach to recording this time out. Recorded right after Keelor's solo tour in March, the band went straight into the studio without rehearsal, learning the songs as they went and recording one a day.

It's an approach that Keelor began experimenting with on his solo album. "With my record, I tried to do it as bareboned as possible," he says, "as simple as you possibly could. Making that record was really intense, because every little space was huge. I'm glad to be able to do that and then go into a chaotic rock and roll situation."

It seems like a bit of a whirlwind schedule, but that's fine by him. "I like the whirlwind now; I'm comfortable in it. No rehearsal, record it, and as soon as you're finished move on to the next one. So when you're finished, you can't even remember what key the song was in when you started it.

"This one is a pretty relaxed record," Keelor continues. "Sometimes if we overplay something and we go in to record it, it doesn't have a sparkle to it. If you're just learning the song  it's only the third or fourth time you've ever played the song and you've managed to get it - it's got something. The (musicians) are still listening, there's a vulnerability to it and it's very connected. I like that."

But because the music was relatively unrehearsed doesn't mean that it's sloppy. There's always been an improvisatory element to the band, whether it's jazzy keyboard solos or psychedelic guitar jams. The first time the band as a whole - not just original keyboardist Bob Wiseman - really started to expand the songs on record was 1992's Lost Together, which was also their first self produced album. It also marked the departure of Wiseman, the addition of drummer Glenn Milchem, and the beginning of a new band.

They then retreated to Keelor's farm with new members James Gray (keyboards) and Kim Deschamps (pedal steel) and guests Sarah McLachlan (piano, vocals) and Anne Bourne (cello) to record Five Days in July, a laidback, mostly acoustic record which became the band's biggestselling album to date.

After relentless touring, it was followed by 1995's Nowhere to Here, a record plagued by personal problems inside the band and darker material like the dirgy opening track "Save Myself." It was the sound of a veteran band struggling to find new challenges. After such a mainstream success, however, the new fairweather fans weren't interested in Blue Rodeo's artistic growth. The album was viewed as a disappointment, despite containing some of their most exciting work.

The band has now purged many of those ghosts, and Tremolo finds them settling comfortably into a countrified groove. "On the last record, every second song had at least 32 bars for a solo, sometimes 64, just a long jamming record. In my own mind, I knew that I wanted to keep my own stuff more concise." The album is considerably focused, which in turn can inspire criticism for not breaking any new ground for the band this late in their career. But now, says Keelor, they would rather "let the record reveal itself instead of pounding it into shape. (Nowhere to Here) was pounded at."

One different direction for the band is the thrashy threechord old school punk of "Graveyard," the album's closing track and perhaps the loudest song Blue Rodeo has ever recorded. "For years we've been ending our records with almost pastoral pieces," explains Keelor. "This time we realized we were ending the record with another pastoral landscape, and so we thought we could just throw this little number in.

"Writing a song like 'Graveyard' is almost nostalgia. Even though I listened to a lot of different things growing up, when I first started playing in bands in '78 that's the kind of song I wrote back then. That's a big part of my joy in music, just going out of your head. Playing it live is such a blast."

It's a bit of a shock coming from Keelor, especially after his hushed solo album. For years was known as the rocker in the band next to the crooner Cuddy, but lately the two no longer have distinct roles in the band. "These days I seem to write a lot of deadstop slow sort of songs, because that's where I find the intensity," he says. "I still like writing threechord rock and roll songs, or uptempo pop songs, or springtime hitthecountry songs, but the deepest part of myself is in those really slow ones. There's a couple on the new record, but I could easily do a whole record of those all the time."

One of the older songs on Tremolo is the bitter breakup song "No Miracle No Dazzle," cowritten by Keelor and Cuddy with Michelle McAdorey and Colin Cripps, formerly of Crash Vegas. "We recorded it once with Jim singing it as a country song, around (the time of) Five Days," says Keelor. "It sounded great, but it sounded a little too much like Randy Travis. It didn't sound like us, it sounded too country. I've always liked the song, so we tried it again and enjoyed it." The new version is considerably rockier, especially live, where Cuddy pulls off a raunchy and raw guitar solo that would give Travis nightmares. Keelor sings it with a vitriol that's interesting for a song he cowrote with an old girlfriend. But he and McAdorey still work together occasionally, most recently on his solo album. On that record, the song "All My Heroes" was "written about the breakup of Crash Vegas," says Keelor. "It was about all the fun that Michelle and I used to have when we first started writing songs and first started falling in love and hanging out, the slow demise of that."

The first single off the album is "It Could Happen to You," a song that - aside from the Rheostatics' "Bad Time to Be Poor" - is a rare instance in '90s Canadian rock where a political song becomes a hit single. The band's political side, found in early songs like "God and Country," hasn't been heard since Lost Together's "Fools Like You." According to Keelor, this is just coincidence. "I've never been one who can really calculate my songwriting," he says. "When they come, they come. Jim was down in New York shooting a video, and on the location where they were shooting there was a squat, that the state troopers had just booted (the residents) out of. He met the people there and talked to them, and wrote a song about them. You can only (write politically) when it actually touches you somehow."

Much of Keelor's songwriting inspiration these days comes from his life on his farm, where he's lived for the past seven years. "I've always liked the trees," says the former urbanite. "I find it easier to hang out with trees than people. People scare me a bit ... I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto, when they were still farm fields. And then I grew up in a suburb of Montreal. But there was this cottage my parents had, and I spent all my summers up there until I was 18. The neighbour at the cottage was a forester, and I used to work with him on timber crews in Northern Ontario and all through New Brunswick. I've always had an affinity for walking through the woods. A lot of my songwriting is I'll start writing a song, go for a walk in the woods, and it sorts itself out somehow."