BLUE RODEO: Striving for Perfection

Blue Rodeo vocalist/guitarist Greg Keelor caused a stir recently when he declared that the band’s latest studio release, “In Our Nature” was their swan song.

“No it’s not our last record, but it may be our last good record,” said Keelor on the phone, backtracking from his original statement but may be adding even more confusion to the mix.” Every time you go into the studio to make a record, you are trying to make the best record you can, you are trying to reach perfection. The reality is that you never quite make that perfect record – but with “In Our Nature”, I think we came pretty close.”

Recorded in two sessions at Keelor’s Northern Ontario farmhouse, the same location which spawned the “5 Days In July” record 20 years ago, Blue Rodeo’s revamped band, which now includes guitarist Colin Cripps and keyboardist Michael Boguski, as well as group mainstays, guitarist/vocalist Jim Cuddy, bassist Bazil Donovan, multi-instrumentalist Bob Egan and drummer Glen Milchem just seemed to jell together while on tour, and by the time they came together during the first session in September 2011, Keelor noted that he couldn’t remember when the band had ben playing so well as a unit.

“I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but I have never known us to sound as cohesive as we did on those sessions. We had a great bunch of songs, we all worked well together, it was just a great feeling recording those sessions,” enthused Keelor. “It doesn’t happen every time, but this time I could sense it was something special.”

Blue Rodeo
Blue Rodeo
“We started recording a year last September and really liked what we were doing,” continued Keelor. “Then we took a Christmas break to go on the road and on that road trip (celebrating the band’s 25th anniversary) the band really started to bloom. It’s very nice when you’re an old geezer like I am and you still enjoy playing music.”

Keelor also credits his farmhouse studio which has successfully recreated a live sound that was first captured during their highly-praised “5 Days In July” release. “There’s definitely a Blue Rodeo vibe about the place” acknowledged Keelor. “Over the years, the way we record has changed. With this place, we have snakes all through the house (No not those snakes!!), every room can be used, I can put acoustics in one room and get a nice separation and I can be in another room with my acoustics and we all work well together.”

An important consideration for Keelor is that the tinnitus condition that has adversely affected his hearing is so acute that he cannot even tolerate headphones and he has to sing and play through special speakers rather than monitors. That is why he has a special acoustic set-up in his studio.

A condition that has gradually deteriorated his hearing over the past 20 years, Keelor got to the point that he couldn’t tolerate any sound over a certain frequency. “If I expose myself to too much noise, I get really punched out and it takes me a long time to recover,” he confessed.

It was a problem that adversely affected Keelor’s live performances with Blue Rodeo and even threatened to curtail future tours. “I’d have to come and do like 30-minute acoustic sets with the rest of the guys but it was a pretty lousy way to perform, no one was happy,” admitted Keelor. “We had to look for a way to get me back in the band and we did come up with a new system based around everyone wearing bud earphones and all the speakers being placed off-stage.”

With Cripps enlisted to take over electric guitar duties and Bogurski assuming keyboard duties, Blue Rodeo has been revitalized both in the studio and as a touring act. Song-wise “In Our Nature” is one of the strongest, if not THE strongest record this band has produced in its 26 year career with Cuddy’s distinctive up-tempo compositions striking a balance against Keelor’s more introspecitive, spiritually motivated lyrics.

“It’s like a conversation is taking place between us through the whole record,” noted Keelor who allowed that some other Blue Rodeo records hadn’t been so copacetic and that there had been an obvious clash of styles.

“I’ve got a little cabin near Minden, Ontario and I was sitting there one day, looking at the lake with this beautiful Canadian image of the forest being reflected in the water and I realized that this image reflected my relationship with Jim (Cuddy). He is the sunny image on top of the water and I am the reflection in the water with all that murky stuff. When we get it right, we definitely compliment each other.”

This formula definitely works with Keelor’s `Wondering’ following Cuddy’s debut single `New Morning Sun’ and Keelor’s `Mattawa’ preceding Cuddy’s `Made Up Your Mind’ (which to this writer’s ears is the strongest song the band has recorded since `Try’. Blue Rodeo even pays tribute to The Band, a key musical inspiration for the group with a stunning cover of The Band’s `Out Of The Blue’.

With their 13th studio record now released and a national tour set to kick off in January, Blue Rodeo seem to be as creative as ever. Their new record has been promoted by an innovative video produced by Chris Mills which combines two songs; Keelor’s “Mattawa’ and Cuddy’s “New Morning Sun’” into a film vignette which effectively captures the record’s lyrical essence.

[youtube width=”600″ height=”338″ video_id=”gxdnR6GdSTQ”]

“It’s funny how that video reflects the current state of today’s music industry,” noted Keelor. “A few years ago, we couldn’t have attempted to shoot that video. CMT and Much Music dictated all the rules on how long a video could run. Now these days with YouTube, there are no restrictions, we can do what ever we want. I thought Chris did a very inventive job.”

Another twist to Blue Rodeo’s forthcoming tour is that everyone buying a pair of tickets to the concert will also receive a free copy of the new record – although their is a method to their madness. “We want to perform the entire record from start to finish, something we haven’t done since “Five Days In July” so obviously we want the people in the audience to be fully exposed to the new material in advance”.

Which may mean that some of the band’s classic hits like “Rose -Coloured Glasses’, Lost Together’, `Diamond Mine’, `Hasn’t Hit Me Yet’, `Till I Am Myself Again’, `It Could Happen To You’ or even `Try’ might be lopped of their set list.

Keelor is adamant that the band’s career is in its final stretch. Yes he is aware that Blue Rodeo is considered Canada’s quintessential music group. That since breaking on to the scene in 1987 with their debut Outskirts album (which spawned arguably there biggest hit, Cuddy’s “Try”), Blue Rodeo’s roots, country, rock sound is uniquely Canadian, So unique that the U.S market never has been able to figure them out.

“It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, there has been lots of snakes and ladders and conflicts and dramas,” noted Keelor. “One of the good things about our success is that it is `limited success’. By that I mean, yes we have had success but we’ve never been so big that we haven’t had to work. At times, I might have said “Fuck You Cuddy”, but it’s never come to the point where we felt like breaking up the band. We are such good friends and any animosity is tempered by the reality is that we still have to work.”

Having said that, Cuddy has achieved a creative outlet with his Jim Cuddy Band side project and Keelor has written and recorded with several other artists.

007-blue-rodeo-by-dustin-rabin-cropFor the record, Blue Rodeo did get a couple of kicks at the can in the States with their 1990 “Casino” release being pushed Stateside on Atlantic Records’ East-West Records boutique label and the band themselves managed by top manager Danny Goldberg.

“Things were in place for us to take the next step but it never really happened,” explained Keelor. “The Americans couldn’t figure us out, they like to put a hat on things and we just couldn’t be bothered with all the touring and promotion we were expected to do. We just said, Nah! Not doing that any more.”

America’s loss has definitely been Canada’s gain. Having toured constantly since 1987 and racked up impressive sales of their 13 studio and three live records plus five DVD releases, Blue Rodeo has also been honoured by induction into the CARAS Hall of Fame in April 2012 and the band also received their star on Canada’s Walk Of Fame in September 2009 as well as chalking up 11 Juno Awards.

“We haven’t been inspired all the time and sometimes you find yourself doing it just to survive,” noted Keelor “But then, all of sudden you do get inspired and you build a certain momentum. It’s kind of like how I feel right now. We are at a point in our careers where it’s not the end but we are writing our final chapters. But it is nice to be inspired and I still feel we have enough energy to keep going.”

Keelor has noted that it is a sign of the times, when the little boy he used to babysit for Jim and his wife Rena has how grown up to be Blue Rodeo’s opening act on the tour!. The Devin Cuddy Band, with Devin Cuddy on keyboards will indeed open for his dad’s band.

“I was Devin’s first ever baby sitter,” mused Keelor. “I remember pushing him on those Fisher-Price swing sets. And now he’s grown up and he’s touring with us. This a bad sign, a very bad sign!”

– Keith Sharp
– Photos by Dustin Rabin

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