Blue Rodeo

bazil donovan, bob wiseman, jim cuddy, greg keelor, mark frenchThe first time Toronto friends Jim cuddy and Greg Keelor met was while both played for Toronto Collegiate’s football team. When they finally decided to collaberate together, they’d actually both moved to Alberta and each took the occasional performing gig while making ends meet.

They both moved back to Toronto again by ’76, where Cuddy was attending Queen’s University. They formed the short-lived power pop/new wave crossover band The Hi Fi’s early the next year and released the single “I Don’t Know Why You Love Me” for the indie label Showtime Records a few months later, then quietly disintegrated. They were approached by Ready Records, home to new wave acts Blue Peter and The Spoons, but the deal fell through when the Hi-Fis couldn’t find more gigs outside of their limited circuit.

They toiled on the scene for a few years before moving to New York in ’81, partially because Cuddy’s future wife had been accepted into New York City Theatre School. Keelor also knew a fellow Toronto group in NYC called The Hunger Project, which he played for off and on briefly. That group would eventually become The Cowboy Junkies. But the new atmosphere bred a breath of fresh air into the duo’s writing. Manager Howard Wiseman agreed to take them under his wing, and they formed Fly to France, a group that included a never-ending array of members who answered ads in The Village Voice (one of which was future keyboardist Bob Wiseman, their manager’s younger brother.) They tried to meld as many forms of music into their sound as possible – ska, reggae, punk, you name it. They earned a reputation of being almost chameleon-like, able to play in just about every club on the circuit.

Restless again, Keelor and Cuddy moved back to Toronto a few years later, where they got the Drongoes, a New Zealand-based group to play back up and helped write some songs. A four-song demo ensued that contained “Try,” “Outskirts,” “Rose Coloured Glasses,” and “Floating.” While the peddling ensued, they recruited longtime friend Cleave Anderson (Battered Wives, The Sharks) as their drummer, who in turn suggested Bazil Donovan (Demons, The Sharks, Strike One, The Scabs) as the band’s bass player. Donovan had also coincidentally answered the band’s ad in a magazine but hadn’t at that point been given a call back yet. They called on Wiseman to round out the lineup shortly thereafter.

The demos caught the attention of Warner Bros Records’ Bob Roper, who in turn introduced them to John Caton, manager of Prairie Oyster and owner of the label, Risque Disque. He arranges for the band to meet famed producer Terry Brown (Rush, Klaatu, Max Websterand a million others). This begins a recording process for the band’s first record that lasted over a year and a half. OUTSKIRTS finally hit the stores in the summer of ’87. “Try” became an instant bonafide across the country, transcending the pop and country charts – in the heyday of hair metal, glam and power pop. Other tracks of interest included “Underground,” written for the band’s friend and fellow performer Handsome Ned, who’d died of a heroin overdose earlier in the year, the title track, and reworked versions of the other three original demos. The album went on to be certified double platinum (200,000 copies in Canada) and the band spent the better part of the next year and a half on the road with another country/rock crossovers such as KD Lang.

They hooked up with producer Malcom Burn for their follow-up, DIAMOND MINE, released in the spring of ’89. That relationship started because of Keelor’s side project Crash Vegas, where they recorded at the Hamilton studio The Lab, which was owned by Daniel Lanois and operated by Burn. The record immediately shot out of the gates. But while preparing for more touring, Anderson packed it in and quit the music business altogether in favour of staying with his full-time job at Canada Post. Mark French was brought in as the replacement by the time cuts like “God And Country,” “How Long,” the title track (which ran almost eight minutes on the lp but was edited for radio play), and “Girl of Mine” were becoming mainstays on the airwaves. The record eventually surpassed that of the debut and went three times platinum. That same year they all but owned the Juno Awards, winning ‘best single’ and ‘best video’ for “Try,” ‘group of the year,’ and were nominated as well for ‘album of the year’ for OUTSKIRTS and ‘Canadian entertainer of the year.’ Before the year was out, a rather unusual ‘big break’ Stateside occurred. Actress Meryl Streep heard their music – the result was them being asked to appear in a cameo in the film ‘Postcards From The Edge.’

But the band’s fortunes were temporarily put on hiatus when manager John Caton quit the business because of health and financial reasons, resulting in the closure of their label, Risque Disque. Only months later though, they were told Warner Canada was taking over their contract, and they signed with Danny Goldberg, a Los Angeles entertainment manager that also had Alannah Myles and Bonnie Raitt, among others, under contract. Again, they took home that year’s Juno for ‘group of the year’ and were nominated for ‘Canadian entertainer of the year.’

Recorded in Hollywood with producer Peter Anderson behind the controls, CASINO was next up in ’91. Anderson was a Grammy Award-winner, producing such country hit-makers as Dwight Yoakam, Roy Orbison, KD Lang, Buck Owens, Michelle Shocked, and dozens of others. The record was certified double platinum at home and reached #6 on the charts, thanks in part to the lead-off single “Til I Am Myself Again” which peaked at #19 on the US charts, “What Am I Doing Here,” “Montreal” and “After The Rain.” But although it received strong critical praise south of the border and high expectations were put on it, it still failed to make Blue Rodeo a household name in the US. Wiseman, unhappy with his friend Cleave Anderson now gone, also leaves after the final tour, which included an April 1990 show at the Toonik Tyme Festival in Iqaluit, Nanuvit. Although they’re praised for being one of the first relatively prominent acts to ever play that far north, the trip goes sour when Wiseman and Donovan were arrested for marijuana possession at the airport. The charges were dropped a year later when a judge ruled the search violated their Charter of Rights.

They took home their third straight Juno that year for ‘group of the year.’ and were runners up for ‘Canadian entertainers of the year.’ After adding Kim Deschamps on pedal steel guitar, (ex of Cowboy Junkies), French also parted ways with the group, and Glenn Milchem, ex of Vital Sines, Whitenoise, the Garbagemen, Groovy Religion, Plasterscene Replicas, and Andrew Cash, was the new guy behind the drum kit.

In the summer of 1992 they came back with LOST TOGETHER, their toughest, grittiest offering yet. Self-produced for the first time, the album showed the band had a side that until that time still hadn’t been seen, gaining them much critical praise on both sides of the border, though the ‘big hit down south’ still seemed to elude them. They hit the road again in support of tracks like the lead-off “Fools Like You,” “Restless,” “Western Skies,” the title track, which reached #3 on the Canadian charts, and “Already Gone.” By the time the tour was over, which included stops in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, the record had sold in excess of 200,000 units, making it the band’s fourth straight multiple platinum seller. “Rain Down On Me” was nominated for ‘best video’ at that year’s Junos.

But once the tour bus came to a stop, the band found themselves recruiting a replacement for Wiseman on keyboards who’d left to pursue a solo career. Through exhaustive auditions they found James Gray, ex of Cowboy Junkies (whose father Jerry was a founding member of the pioneering Canadian folk group The Travellers). Gray had also played with Milchem in Vital Sines. Frustrated at the inability to crack the US market, the band did a 180, and took a mobile recording studio to Keelor’s farm in rural Ontario the next summer. Stripped down to a raw acoustic sound, the result was FIVE DAYS IN JULY, which featured cameos by Sarah McLachlan, Colin Linden and Anne Bourne. Although it was originally intended as a special for the CBC, the band came out of seclusion with more than enough strong material for a record. It produced six cross-over singles which all charted in the top 20, including the lead-off single “It Hasn’t Hit Me Yet,” which eventually pushed it six times platinum. Other notable tracks included the Rodney Crowell-penned “Til I Gain Control Again,” “Dark Angel,” the harmonica-driven “Bad Timing,” and “Head Over Heels.” Along with countless sold-out venues and several TV appearances, the record helped solidify Blue Rodeo as one of the most versatile groups on the scene.

The band reconvenes at Keelor’s farm to try to recapture the magic from its last record, although this time the circumstances are much different. To start, the recording was done in winter, without a recording truck. Keelor, recently diagnosed with diabetes, also learned he’d been adopted as a baby. While en route to Nova Scotia in search of his birth mother, his health failed. Although he recovered after returning home, the recording atmosphere just wasn’t the same. NOWHERE TO HERE was released in September of ’95. Way off-kilter for a country/rock fusion, the record featured a more eclectic, thought out and more time-consuming production with an emphasis on the electric guitar – and yet, according to most critics, without a direction. Often bordering on dark and almost gloomy, beginning with the dreamy “Save Myself” and closing with the ruminative “Flaming Bed,” the album also featured gems like “Brown-Eyed Dog,” the harmonious “Side of the Road,” and “Blew It Again” – a rocker about losing love but getting on in life. Sarah McClaughlin again guested on a pair of tracks, “Save Myself,” and “Girl In Green.” More Juno nominations followed more sold-out tours, and although less received by the fans, it still sold over 200,000 copies and produced five singles, not bad by most standards, but only half of the previous album’s sales.

Keelor and Cuddy agree to spend a little more time apart to allow for other projects to be tackled, one of which was Keelor’s PINE RIDGE: SONGS FOR LEONARD PELTIER, a 1996 lp where the proceeds went to benefit the jailed Native activist. It includes tracks by The Tragically Hip, among others. He also released his first solo project, GONE, after spending some meditation time in India. Cuddy meanwhile releases his first solo album as well, ALL IN TIME.

Produced by the band and John Whynott, the reviews for 1997’s TREMOLO were mixed at best. It featured new member Kim Deschamps on pedal steel guitar, but critics generally conceded the string arrangements made it too elusive for fans to get a proper feel of what the band was trying to say, even for a Blue Rodeo record. Still, it produced three singles over the next year – “It Could Happen To You,” “Falling Down Blue,” and “Shed My Skin,” and topped the Canadian country charts on its way to selling over 100,000 copies.

The band’s first live album, the double length JUST LIKE A VACATION was put out before the end of 1999, and featured 22 of their biggest hits that spanned their career. With a hand from Trina Shumaker, they released THE DAYS IN BETWEEN in January of 2000, recorded the previous summer in Nashville. But once again there were outside circumstances in the recording – namely another bout of poor health with Keelor that had him hospitalized for nearly two weeks and bedridden for over a month. Once again the critics came down hard, and although four singles were released, “Somebody Waits,” “Always Getting Better,” the title track, and “Sad Nights,” only the first two charted, and the album became the band’s first to only reach gold status (50,000 units). The band’s political conscience took a front seat with the song “Truscott,” which told the tale of Stephen Truscott, a man who was wrongly imprisoned in the 1950s for a murder he was found innocent of over 40 years later.

The band took a break over the next year while doing outside projects, with a few exceptions, including their performance at the SARS including solo records from Cuddy, Keelor, Egan, and Donovan. Milchem began performing with his side project, The Swallows. Meanwhile, Warner released THE GREATEST HITS VOLUME 1, which featured the new track, the cover of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody,” and a reworked version of “After The Rain,” complete with horn section. While on tour in support of his first solo record, Cuddy asked band member Bob Egan (Freakwater, Wilco) to be the new keyboardist/pedal steel guitarist for Blue Rodeo to replace the recently departed Deschamps. Egan agreed, and PALACE OF GOLD was released in the fall of ’02. Recorded at their brand new studio The Wood Shed in downtown Toronto, it contained four singles, including “Bulletproof,” which Cuddy wrote in an attempt to emulate the songwriting of one of his favourite artists, Ron Sexsmith. The song was originally intended for Donovan’s solo project, but instead used it for the band’s record. The titletrack was also later covered by Toronto surf-country band The Sadies, under the title of “The Story’s Often Told,” which was produced by Keelor.

Warner re-released the greatest hits package in the US in 2004, and took out “It Could Happen To You” and replaced it with “Bulletproof.” Meanwhile, the band released ARE YOU READY a year later. It featured cameos from Paddy Moloney of The Chieftans, Bryden Baird on trumpet and Travis Good on guitars and mandolin. On the backs of “Rena,” written about Cuddy’s wife, and “Can’t Help Wondering Why,” it sold over 50,000 copies. Other noteable cuts included “Runaway Train,” about a geological formation near Thunder Bay, Ont called ‘the sleeping giant.’ “Beverley Street” was originally intended for the DIAMOND MINE album, but never made the cut and was then basically forgotten by the band until a year prior to ARE YOU READY’s release, and is partially also about Cuddy’s relationship he had with his father.

The band marked its 20th anniversary by reforming the original lineup for a one-time performance that was made into their first DVD, IN STEREOVISION in 2003. The disc also included a documentary on the band, as well as all the hits buyers expected to be present. On its heels, Keelor released another solo record, a eulogy for his father who died earlier that year, called SEVEN SONGS FOR JIM. On it is a radically different arrangement of the title track to the album ARE YOU READY.

A deal was struck with the Instant Live label, and a pair of ‘official bootlegs’ were released in 2006, both entitled LIVE IN STRATFORD. Both were double CDs, and captured the band’s live essence from back to back shows that January, when the Festival Theatre is normally closed. Each show had a predominately different set list with a few surprises, including a cover of Lee Hazelwood’s “Run Boy Run,” Kate Boothman performing the female vocal on “Can’t Help Wondering Why,” and Donovan singing lead on “Stage Door.”

With new keyboardist Bob Packwood, SMALL MIRACLES was next up in 2007. Three singles were released, “C’mon,” “Three Hours Away,” and “This Town.” Although the highest charted single was “This Town,” which peaked at #29 on the adult contemporary chart, the album still turned to gold while the band continued touring relentlessly across North America.

The next year saw BLUE ROAD hit the shelves, which included the only single, “Losin’ You,” which failed to dent the charts. The CD/DVD combo also featured rare and live footage taken from the band’s concert at Massey Hall a year earlier. Following the subsequent tours, which included playing for the Canadian troops in Afghanistan, Packwood packed it in and left the group to pursue other projects.

2009 proved to be a banner year for the group, releasing THE THINGS WE LEFT BEHIND in the fall, the band’s most energetic project to date, just prior to receiving a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame and headlining the half-time show during the Grey Cup in Calgary. The title track, complete with tympani and orchestral arrangement opened their first double CD package, and was the first song Keelor ever wrote on the piano. “Sheba” and “Million Miles” harkened back to the 60s rock all the members grew up with, while “Never Look Back” is an all-out rocker that could easily be mistaken for something the Everly Brothers wrote if played at half-speed. “Candice” is anything but your typical ‘girl next door that you never got to hook up with’ folk/rock fusion. Ironically, both Keelor and Cuddy (unbeknownst to each other) wrote about a couple that they both knew and their relationship that ended because of life on the road – “One Light Left In Heaven” by Cuddy and “Venus Rising” by Keelor. Michael Boguski filled in on keyboards while the band again hit the road.

Concert review
Bonnyville, AB
Jan 22, 2008
by Dan Brisebois

top: Jim Cuddy, Greg Keelor, Bazil Donovan. bottom - Bob Egan, Glen MilchemIt was a menu Alberta’s Lakeland has never seen Tuesday night, when the doors of the Bonnyville Centennial Centre opened for one of Canadian music’s icons, as well as one of the country’s hottest independent artists. The appetizer of the night was Luke Doucet and the White Falcon, opening for the main course, the legendary Blue Rodeo. And the capacity crowd was served a healthy portion of three solid hours of a country/rock blend, with hints of roots, rockabilly, folk, and even a few jazz and blues offerings sprinkled into the mix.

The show’s ingredients weren’t the typical way to start a rock concert, but this was no ordinary experience. Doucet himself is a disciple of the flavours Blue Rodeo has served up in a career that’s spanned two dozen albums, DVD’s and solo projects. In fact, Doucet borrowed drummer Glenn Michem for the show, and group co-founder Jim Cuddy recently made a guest appearance on his latest album, BLOOD’S TOO RICH. Also on stage with Doucet was his wife and fellow indie artist Melissa McClelland.

But like his idols, he’s much too versatile to be pegged under a ‘label.’ He’s found a ‘sound,’ without being easily labeled. His influences include everyone from The Band to The Violent Femmes, Rolling Stones to Stevie Ray Vaughn, and the band served up those samplings to the crowd on a silver platter in an energetic one-hour set.

For the first half of the main course, Blue Rodeo’s props were simple, and half the band began the show seated, while offering many of the laid-back hits that have made them one of the pinnacles of Canadian crossover music today. The melodies were strong and spiced with enthusiasm, and the crowd savoured every minute.

It was unlikely you were going to hear any stunning electric guitar solos during the first part of the show. In fact, Cuddy and Greg Keelor didn’t stray from their acoustic guitars, relying instead on the simple backbeat from Michel’s lone snare drum and bassist Bazil Donovan to carry the load.

The spotlight often switched back and forth between Bob Egan’s slide guitar and piano and organ (yes – organ, not keyboards per se) from Bob Packwood, with the band saving some of their biggest hits including “To Love Somebody” and “Try” until the middle of the show. Then the curtain dropped, the lights got brighter, the backdrop lit up with a myriad of colours and patterns and the burner was turned up high, as the band tore into “Til I Am Myself Again,” taking the crowd back and forth on a roller coaster ride of tempos and emotions from their two decades on the scene. They even slipped in a few flavours from Cuddy’s and Keelor’s solo projects throughout the evening.

The concert was often at times intimate, and some of the biggest ovations came when Cuddy praised Bonnyville’s Centennial Centre. “For a town this size, this is an incredible place to play, and you should be proud,” he pandered. Along with a taste of their latest album SMALL MIRACLES, the band’s nearly two dozen albums and DVDs were well-represented throughout the show with “What Am I Doing Here,” “Flaming Bed,” “Diamond Mine,” and “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet.”

The band also relied on a helping hand from Doucet and his group at times, as Blue Rodeo was all too willing to share the spotlight with the next generation of country rockers during the encore, when the most faithful finally decided it was OK to get up and dance in front of the stage. The Fieldhouse was filled to the brim, and their appetites were huge. But by the time the two-course meal was devoured, scarcely anyone left unsatisfied.


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