National Holiday
Blue Rodeo take their annual Vacation on the road by Michael Barclay

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Why give the people just what they want when you could give them more? From day one, Blue Rodeo's mainstream country-rock has risen above that of their peers by incorporating psychedelic pop and a freedom to improvise, elements that push traditional song structures. But for the past three years, that philosophy has also been applied to their annual lakeside bash, the Stardust Picnic, which the band took on the road for the first time this summer.

With its minimal corporate involvement, unconventional venues and quality food and drink, the Stardust vibe is decidedly different from that of other outdoor festivals. "It's as much the atmosphere as the concert," says singer-guitarist Jim Cuddy, while watching his children swimming in the Guelph Lake (co-leader Greg Keelor has been delayed by an overheating car). "People really respond to that, which I suppose is a desperate thing, meaning that they're so used to the opposite: feeling compromised, ripped off and sponsored to death. And we're subject to that, too."

Blue Rodeo – that is, the partnership of Cuddy, Keelor and bassist Bazil Donovan – will celebrate 15 years together next February. Despite the title of their new double live album, Just Like A Vacation (Warner), though, there's been very little downtime in their history, with seven original albums, four solo albums – one from Cuddy, one from Keelor, one from multi-instrumentalist Kim Deschamps and one from drummer Glenn Milchem's band the Swallows – and a tour schedule that has hit small town arenas as well as big-city theatres across the country. So while Stardust is certainly a highlight of their year, in some ways it's just another stop.

"We are the bad because we've played so much," says Cuddy. "When we were coming up, it was so Torontonian to play an event for a year and then hold ‘The Even'. We thought, ‘Well, then what do you do? Don't you want to play tomorrow night?' The best thing to do is to play and learn as you go. It's also being inherently lazy – you keep going because if you stop, you're afraid you won't want to do it anymore."

Just Like A Vacation was recorded on the band's 1998 theatre tour, where they played two sets of career-spinning material each night, paced to give the show a more "theatrical element," says Cuddy.

Altering their show was not merely an aesthetic decision, but an essential one.
"For the longest time, we believed that our aesthetic was randomness, to the point where we weren't using set lists. That wasn't working," Cuddy admits. "At the end of the night, we'd think, ‘What did we just do?' This [tour] had a sense of accomplishment by the end of the night."

The band's live evolution has gone through ebbs and flows. In the beginning, original keyboardist Bob Wiseman comprised the full extent of Blue Rodeo's improv skills. Following his departure and the addition of Milchem, Deschamps and keyboardist James Gray, Cuddy says that band underwent a "critical change" while touring for 1992's Lost Together. "We became more guitar-oriented – without the chops. It took us a long time to figure out how to do that."

When they did, the result took its toll.
"By the time we finished Lost Together tour, we were such a loud band. Doing 150 loud shows was too fatiguing," Cuddy continues, "So we did an acoustic record because we were interested in it, but it also provided us with an enormous relief onstage."

That acoustic record, 1993's Five Days In July, became their most popular album, providing a mid-career boost and songs that remain audience favourites. Cuddy has fond memories of debuting that then-unreleased material – the whole album, in order – before a hometown crowd. "It went on too long, there's no doubt about it," he laughs. "But people loved it."

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Because they had found such success with a relaxed approach, they assumed that would apply to their 1995 follow-ip, Nowhere to Here. But Cuddy makes it sound as though the words in the album should have been reversed. "It culminated to our [1996] show at Maple Leaf Gardens, which was a disaster," he admits. "We played like shit – we didn't know what we were doing, there'd be two-minute pauses while we conferred onstage. We realized that we had to go back to some traditional professionalism. The reason you can be released onstage is that you're really trained – and then you can forget. You have to know a rule to abandon it."

That approach is bleeding into their current project, being recorded in New Orleans with Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow, Kristin Hersh). Cuddy has trouble containing his enthusiasm for what he thinks could be their best record yet. He attributes much of this to Shoemaker and the fact that the band "Criticized, tore apart, re-did and cut songs," which is not normal Blue Rodeo behaviour. "We've always been like the Irving Layton of rock – if we write it, it goes on the record," Cuddy laughs.

The last time Blue Rodeo worked with a name American producer was with Pete Anderson on 1990's Casino, a dictatorial experience that informed all their future self-producing recordings. "We need somebody who will work with us – be an objective ear. We don't need to be told what to do; we've been doing it for 20 years. We have to figure out when we're being indulgent. If every record is going to be a left turn, someone has to understand what the band has been in order to understand what it could be."

Finding new beginning in a 15-year-old framework is a challenge, but Cuddy says the band's longevity is due to its initial mandate. "We were smart when we started in choosing a form of music that wasn't youth-oriented," he muses. "It wasn't about radio trends. We loved Willie Nelson, NRBQ, novel stuff, cinema stuff, and it all came out in thsi music. That's why we were attracted to a hybrid form. I don't feel alien from the kind of music I'm doing now, and I'm very different than when we started."

(ratings out of 5)

Outskirts (1987) ****
Refreshing roots rock with a few inspired keyboard fantasies and surprisingly strong lyrics for a debut.

Diamond Mine (1989) *****
Expands an Outskirts template with more atmosphere and their best collection of consistently great songs.

Casino (1990) ***
Very consistent, mainstream and safe; sounds great, less filling.

Lost Together (1992) ***
Their first self-production lets indulgence and filler material cloud what could have been a great album at a shorter length.

Five Days In July (1995) *****
Featuring some of their most enduring gems, this rebirth record succeeds on its mood and acoustic warmth.

Nowhere to Here (1995) ***
This is better than most give it credit for, but no one cared to hear the sound of Blue Rodeo falling apart on the heels of Five Days.

Tremolo (1997) ****
The sound of Blue Rodeo coming back together, it sounds almost effortless and was much more interesting than the singles would suggest.

Just Like A Vacation (1999) ***
The fact that it's a double saves it from being simply their greatest hits live. Showcases Keelor and Cuddy's underrated guitar work and proves why Donovan and Milchem make a subtly masterful rhythm section.


Gone (1997) ****
Greg Keelor's near-perfect pearl of hushed intimacy; an intensely personal yet inclusive labour of love.

All In Time (1998) ***
Jim Cuddy's first solo album is uneven and unsurprising. The best songs might as well be Blue Rodeo; the lesser ones would benefit from some creative tension.

Take Me Away (1998) ***
Kim Deschamps' solo disc offeers tasteful folk blues with reggae tinges, featuring not only superb playing but Deschamps' strong bluesy tenor singing.

Turning Blue (1999) ***
As leader of the Swallows, Glenn Milchem reveals his indie-rock side with this album of moody guitar-heavy songs, more reminiscent of his previous band Change of Heart than Blue Rodeo.