Music Review: Blue Rodeo - 1987 - 1993

There's a big show coming up on CBC Radio 2 Thursday. It's the 25th Anniversary celebration for Blue Rodeo, taped Oct. 29th at the Glenn Gould Studio. The show featured many special guests, friends of the band, including Great Big Sea, The Skydiggers, Ron Sexsmith, The Sadies, and even Jim Cuddy's musician son Devin, born on the first day of recording their debut album. You can hear it at 8 PM Atlantic on Radio 2.

Twenty-five years is a ridiculous amount of time for a band to survive, and not be an oldies act. Most 80's groups are on the casino circuit, but Blue Rodeo continue to be a vibrant recording act, with each recording and tour greeting with excitement by the band's strong following. Despite numerous lineup changes, three core original members still remain (Keelor, Cuddy, Bazil Donovan), and the band continues to evolve, introducing new material and new sounds into their repertoire. Aside from a Greatest Hits, they've resisted looking back, but now they are doing it in style.

1987-1993 is a solid block of a boxed set, comprised of eight CD's and a strong book, covering the first five releases of the band's career, from their breakout Outskirts, to the most celebrated and best-selling disc, Five Days In July. Each of the originals has been sonically spruced up, and there are three more full bonus discs. I'll get this out of the way; if you're a BR fan, you'll do well by picking this up, each remaster is an improvement on the original sound, and the three extras are important and interesting additions to your collection. If you have gaps in your Blue Rodeo, these aren't the ones to miss. Each album represented here was strong to essential, and with few exceptions, each song holds up today.

I'll zoom through the contents of the five main albums, mostly as a reminder. Outskirts introduced the band in a big way, as its second single, Try, ruled both the Top 40 and country charts across Canada back in 1987. Jim Cuddy's first masterpiece was a stunning piece, and remains a brilliant production, his intense, soulful vocal undeniable. Listeners were in for a thrill when they heard the rest, discovering the other side of the band, Greg Keelor and his rockin' country numbers. This was a raucous group that had been ruling the roost on the Queen St. West bar circuit in Toronto, way before alt-country, Americana and No Depression became well-known genres. The group's background in New Wave came through as well, the spiky 5 Will Get You Six, and wildcard keyboard soloist Bobby Wiseman connecting the group to the hip side at the same time Try put them on the Juno Awards stage. Key tracks: Heart Like Mine, Rose-Coloured Gasses, Try.

Diamond Mine from 1988 saw the group getting away from the restricting studio system used on Outskirts, choosing Daniel Lanois cohort Malcolm Burn to record them in an old theatre, so they could play more like their live shows. Burn let the group have their way with the material, instead concentrating on the sound, which resulted in fewer radio-friendly songs but a more cohesive and representative album. Longer pieces dominated, including the title cut. and it had lots of edge, yet still became a hit on the country charts as well as the rock ones. Cuddy contributed a couple of his ballads, but didn't have one that dominated like Try, and perhaps the partnership was leaning a bit more towards Keelor's side still. Key tracks: Diamond Mine, God and Country, House Of Dreams.

Next came Casino in 1990, and the hard-working band was looking to move to the next level. There was an expectation the group would break in the U.S., and it was felt a big-name producer would help with that. The group had narrowed it to two choices; L.A.'s Pete Anderson, who had helmed all of Dwight Yoakam's hits, and Geoff Emerick, a veteran best known for engineering several Beatles albums. Keelor especially is still kicking himself about going with Anderson, although Cuddy rationalizes the choice now, saying they wanted a tougher, in-your-face L.A. touch of the day, and where Diamond Mine was indulgent, the group voted for a streamlined approach. Keelor now feels the reins were too tight on the final product, which we'll get to in a bit when we talk about the demos. The goal of getting a hit in the U.S. wasn't met, but it sure happened again in Canada. Cuddy's songwriting role was becoming more distinct, and he brought both ballads and uptempo singalongs to the disc. It's perhaps even underrated today. Key tracks: Til I Am Myself Again, What Am I Doing Here, Trust Yourself, After The Rain.

After working with different producers their first three albums, the group decided to go it alone for Lost Together in 1992. Again, it's a long album, with lots of room for the tracks to breath, but this time both Cuddy and Keelor had better defined roles as writers, and knew more instinctively to let certain songs be more experimental, while others had the concise nature to become fan and radio favourites. Exit Bob Wiseman after this one. Key tracks: Lost Together, Rain Down On Me, Already Gone, Fools Like You.

1993's Five Days In July is the masterpiece. At first envisioned as an acoustic EP to be recorded at Keelor's rural home, the famous five days went so well it became their greatest full-length work. A trip to Australia had served as a great team-building exercise for the band, now with new members and a broader sound. They were well-rehearsed and relaxed, and the songs were killer. Key Tracks: 5 Days In May, Hasn't Hit Me Yet, Bad Timing, Til I Gain Control Again.

The other three discs in the collection are far more than filler and castaways. Two of the discs are an attempt to right some long-simmering annoyances, at least on the part of Keelor, with original drummer Cleave Anderson and bassist Donovan in agreement, and the rest probably not far off. Keelor always wanted to go back to the master tapes of Outskirts and remix the disc, to bring it more in line with the sound of the original band. Often these are exercises in nuances, but he has come up with some radical differences along the way. From different vocal takes to cranked guitars to alternate Wiseman solos, it's fun to spot the differences as you go. Keelor, a little embarrassed now by the forced twang he put on Rose-Coloured Glasses, reverts to an earlier vocal. Underground's slide guitar gets pushed up to the front. And Try sounds even more desperate, if that's possible.

The other album Keelor reexamines is Casino, but this time a remix won't do, as Anderson did the recordings his way. Instead, the group goes back to the demos made for the album, and not simply acoustic, early takes. Instead, these were full band versions, of nine of the ten tracks that made the album, plus four that didn't. Keelor bemoans the tight, handcuffed method imposed on the band by Anderson, preferring the loose feel of the demos. Most drastic is After The Rain, a song Anderson actually cut with studio players and Cuddy, after the rest had left the session. The four non-album cuts are exciting, as they include two never touched again, and very early versions of Lost Together's Is It You, and Five Days' Photograph.

The last disc is the big yahoo! for fans, a whole set of previously-unreleased recordings called Odds & Ends. There's a bit of everything from the time period, from a pre-Rodeo incarnation, to drastically-altered takes of classics. There are several from the fecund Five Days sessions, including excellent and different takes of Bad Timing and Til I Gain Control Again, the latter with dobro gliding through. You get a glimpse of Keelor's experimental nature, and he heads down to the pond to sing Tell My Your Dream a capella, complete with frogs croaking, a peacock braying, big raindrops hitting an umbrella, and the moan of Glenn Milchem's didgeridoo. There are numbers here you'll be surprised were dropped, including a Cuddy-fronted No Miracle, No Dazzle, later recorded with Keelor singing on Tremolo. Keelor's Room For Rent is surprisingly direct and country for him, perhaps the reason he never used it. And one of the famous cuts Keelor and Cuddy did pre-Rodeo, while living in New York shows up here. Not My Time (Question Of Love) has that New Wave feel of the time, and was recorded with an Australian group, The Drongos. It's pretty good, too, although it whet my appetite for more, including the mentioned, very different early version of Try. There's obviously much more for future archive plundering, as there are more demos spoken of, and there are certainly live tapes from the hundreds of shows. But not many Canadian groups get the opportunity to do big boxed sets, and this is absolutely the way to own the early Blue Rodeo.

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About Bob Mersereau

Rockin' BobBob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).

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