Blue Rodeo evolves but stays faithful to roots

Perry Bergson
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While three decades have brought about much change for Jim Cuddy and Blue Rodeo, the fundamentals have stayed the same.

“We’re like contest winners,” Cuddy says. “It seems funny. But I still have the same expectations about trying to make good music. That hasn’t changed at all. I sit in a dark room and try to write a song. Although I’m much more knowledgeable about how to do that, I still have to summon that up from nothing. I still reject stuff that I think is terrible and am thrilled by stuff that I think is good.

“That’s the heart and soul of what I do. I still have the same standards and it’s still hard work.”

The band behind some of Canada’s most enduring country rock songs returns to Prince Albert on Jan. 22, revisiting the E.A. Rawlinson Centre almost a year after their last show there. Tickets are $85.05.

Cuddy, now 58, says he and bandmate Greg Keelor still can’t get over their good fortune.

“I didn’t have expectations when I was 25,” he says. “I couldn’t believe that anyone could make a living in music. I just thought it was a joke. I kept working until we were touring Diamond Mine. I still had a union card until ’95.”

The band’s 33-date In Our Nature Tour begins on Jan. 2 in Vancouver, working its way across the country. The Devin Cuddy Band opens.

Blue Rodeo formed in 1984, first coming to widespread public attention when their 1987 debut Outskirts yielded the No. 1 hit Try. By their 25th anniversary in 2009, they had released a dozen albums, compiling an enviable collection of hit singles including Diamond Mine, Til I Am Myself Again, Lost Together, 5 Days In May, After The Rain, Bad Timing, Side Of The Road and It Could Happen To You.

The band has seen some changes in personnel over the years, eventually morphing into its current seven-man lineup.

Three of the founding members remain. Cuddy, who plays guitar and sings, is joined by singer/guitarist Keelor and bassist Bazil Donovan. The other members include Colin Cripps (guitarist/singer), Glenn Milchem (drums/vocals), Bob Egan (guitar/pedal steel, mandolin) and Mike Boguski (keyboards).

Cripps is the latest addition, although he has played with Cuddy for 18 years.

“In another era, Colin would just sit in the studio and make a thousand hit records,” Cuddy says. “He’s so good at adding electric guitar parts so quickly. He’s a great third voice and a great producer and suggester. He took a lot of the pressure off of Greg to play electric guitar.”

Cuddy is referencing Keelor’s hearing problems that make loud noise painful for him.

The live show has seen a radical transformation as a result. Keelor actually had to leave the stage for some of the louder songs, rejoining the band for the quieter ones.

They went to in-ear monitors but that led to a phase were Blue Rodeo found themselves more cautious in the live show.

When they realized it, they got after each other in an effort to rediscover the energy. The new faces added the final piece to the puzzle.

“We got back all the dynamics and then all of a sudden we could bring back all these songs,” Cuddy says. “Let’s say Diamond Mine. Diamond Mine comes back because the keyboard player is interesting enough to handle a three-minute solo. Boguski can do that. He can play a solo, fire up the band and keep the band’s attention. That’s not a skill that every keyboard player has and Michael does ...

“And for Colin, we knew that he could play all of the guitar stuff; that’s a no-brainer for him. It was great. It was great to have our whole catalogue back. We had been sort of picking and choosing for years.”

Blue Rodeo’s latest album, In Our Nature, was released in late October.

It was recorded at Keelor’s farm near Peterborough, Ont. They’ve done other projects there before, most notably their albums Five Days In July and Nowhere to Here along with stuff off of Things We Left Behind.

Cuddy says when recording began in 2012, they were trying to recapture the vibe from Five Days In July, albeit with a focus on nicer weather. The rule was that they would keep recording as long as they could eat outside on the patio.

They shut it down in mid-November, went touring and came back to it in the spring of 2013.

“It was just a beautiful place to be and I think that had a lot of influence on the record,” he says. “We were really well looked after by Greg (Keelor) and Kate Boothman, who cooked for us. We just created this beautiful community when we were doing the record. We had a lot of bonding with each other.”

He says it was different than the bonding they do on the road because they would record during the day and have a glass of wine together with their meal in the evening to plan their next day. He said it warded off any potential anxiety during the process.

“I think what that did was it created a very comfortable record,” Cuddy says of their first album in four years. “As aggressive or high energy as we wanted it to be, it still rounded off the edges. It has this nice heart to it.”

Cuddy says the fact that they’ve recorded more than a dozen albums together also helps.

“You know what you’re going for,” he says. “The confusion of the first couple of records, the bewilderment of not knowing how to get sounds abates and you know what to do. But you still have to find the right combination, the right instrumentation ...

“There is still a lot of searching but we’re comfortable now because we understand when we’re there.”

Cuddy’s been around long enough to experience the rapid evolution of the music industry with the advent of the Internet. He likes the availability of a wide range of music and the fact that musicians don’t have to move to Toronto to get a foothold in the Canadian industry anymore.

“That’s the value of this massive communication overhaul,” Cuddy says. “The problem is that people aren’t paying for music. If we’ve seen our record sales cut in half, young bands are nonexistent. You do need a certain amount of money to give up your day job. I worry that young bands will keep going on all this promise but they’ll end up at a certain juncture saying ‘I don’t have one nickel more than I did when we started.’”

Cuddy says the ideal solution is that people come around to the idea that musicians need some money to make the industry pay.

His current band is fortunate. Blue Rodeo maintains a devoted following that has been along for the ride for more than two decades.

“You have to appreciate that that’s incredible for us,” he says. “I meet people all the time and they tell us the history that they’ve had with our band and our music. It’s overwhelming. I know because I’m a music fan and I’ve had that relationship with certain acts that will never change. I’m super flattered.”

It also gives them more of an ability to stay true to themselves when they record. He says the broad appeal of the band allows them to write songs that don’t have to be about their younger selves, but instead they can write about their current circumstances.

It all paid off. The band has sold four million albums, won 11 Junos and been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and a Star on the Walk of Fame. 

“When I hear people singing Lost Together at the end of the night and I realize that we’ve been part of a big night for them, I feel very satisfied.”

Still, he admits that the years are passing.

“There are some times when it seems like an eternity,” he chuckles. “It has been a long road but there have been a lot of familiar faces on that road. Sometimes I look around at the band in the dressing room and I think ‘What has this done to us?’ But generally I’m pretty satisfied that we’re still able to perform at such a high level.”



Organizations: Diamond Mine, Prince Albert, Canadian Music Hall

Geographic location: Canada, Vancouver, Peterborough Toronto

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