If you go by the book, popular music fits neatly into confined categories including country, rock, and rhythm 'n' blues. If you go by the book, Billboard's diverse and discriminating charts designating hits (and near-misses) speak volumes. And, if you go by the book, radio stations infrequently sully airwaves with music not found on playlists which, according to the book, exist because genres of music rarely cross over and hardly ever mix.
Most musical acts live and die by the book. Few venture beyond its narrow margins. Not so Blue Rodeo. The Toronto-based band threw the book away.
Blue Rodeo. New radio. Five accomplished musicians write (and continue to write) their own script despite spikes from ultra-conservative country mavens and jags from reactionary revisionists of rock 'n' roll.
Blue Rodeo plays by its own rules or, more to the point, its own guidelines. The "little band that grew" grew up, grew into perhaps the finest roots-rock outfit this country may ever produce (not to mention it's the best band on the planet). The Rodeo's members (including Mark French, who platooned on skins with Cleave Anderson through '88 before assuming his integral place early in 1989) subscribe to a philosophy hinging upon the notion that nothing's carved in stone (nor rock nor country); hence, it comes as no surprise, with the release of its third album, Casino, the band's bright royal rep's about to be cemented.
It's an unusually warm September morning. A 1977 Cadillac Sedan de Ville slides in and out of a crush of vehicles heading west on Toronto's Gardiner Expressway. In the driver's seat, a seasoned musician with soot-and-silver hair, fingers grazing the steering wheel, tapping out an inaudible beat echoing rhythms of steel. He adjusts and readjusts his sunglasses; he checks the rear-view mirror.
Greg Keelor, half of the Cuddy/Keelor partnership and a fifth of Blue Rodeo, speaks to his other half proofing lyric sheets in the back seat. Jim Cuddy responds with a correction: "It's Far Rockaway, not far rock away." Keelor keeps his eyes on the road. Cuddy sings the line from Time, one of Casino's ten compositions. Keelor self-reflexively supplies half a bar of ad hoc harmonising before he suddenly realises he's not called upon to do that, at least not right now.
Right now? All bets are on; Blue Rodeo's about to take off. Here, there, and everywhere since, again according to the book, it don't mean a thing unless cash registers ring.
The stories surrounding Blue Rodeo's emergence and success began to circulate the moment five players graced Toronto's Rivoli stage on Valentine's Day 1985. With the outfit's first release, Outskirts (1987), praise and accolades came from all sectors. Rolling Stone said something about the best new American band being Canadian, a left-handed compliment all right. Music Express called Blue Rodeo's 1988 Juno appearance with Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson a symbolic "passing of the torch" from The Band to a band — an example of short-sightedness since, over the long view, Blue Rodeo's The band and already musically surpasses The Band ("The Weight," "The Shape I'm In," "Stage Fright," "Ophelia") in its heyday.
Between Outskirts and Diamond Mine (1989), Blue Rodeo received a wreath of prizes including Top Country Group, Outstanding New Artist(s), and Best Single, "Try" (at RPM Weekly's prestigious Big Country Awards); Junos for Group of the Year, Best Single ("Try"), and Best Video as well as Best Country Group, Best Group and Cutting Edge Band (at the Toronto Music Awards), to ID but a stellar few.
The Canadian Country Music Association, in true lip-service fashion, bestowed the 1988 Vista/Rising Star Award upon the band — the band that would go on to appear with Meryl Streep in this year's Mike Nichols film, Postcards from the Edge. And, although Blue Rodeo's list of certified hits thus far includes "Try," "Rebel," "Rose-Coloured Glasses," "God And Country," "House Of Dreams," "Girl Of Mine," and "Now And Forever," venerable CCMA members turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the band at its recent awards show.
University of Waterloo. The campus could double as a fairway. Five guys congregate on an open-air stage and face an attentive sea of eyes and ears. Late afternoon sun burns a hole in the sky directly above them, bathes them in a subtle shimmering corona. The first notes turn an almost-country stillness into a blur of movement. Cuddy and Keelor, axes poised, take their cue from bass man Bazil Donovan while keyboardist Bob Wiseman, stage left, picks up a riff and bursts into a stunning harmonica solo so hot, so cool, and oh-so-down-and-dirtily clean, the audience gasps.
If good music envelops its listeners, then Blue Rodeo creates a first-class wrap-around sound. From its opening note to its closing chord, the band's special delivery provides a preview of Casino's astonishing sphere of influence, style, and lovely sustained musicality. It ain't country; it ain't rock 'n' roll; it's just five consummate musicians playing the peaks, working the valleys, and singing to beat all preconceptions concerning electroacoustic bands.
Casino (and the live show) opens with "'Til I Am Myself Again," a song crafted along lines of sophisticated simplicity. Its lead-guitar intro, reminiscent of The Byrds' "I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better," hits the boards flying, energy barely contained, soaring along a harmonic and instrumental horizon dotted with precision bass, grace, and trace notes. The Rodeo doesn't sound similar to The Byrds (or anyone else) at all; rather, its unique blend refers often to that most musically prolific era — Joni Mitchell, The Doors, Leonard Cohen, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, Little Feat, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, CCR, David Bromberg, Steve Goodman, Elvis Costello, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Neil Young, Janis Joplin, CSNY, et. al. — ultimately subsumed by a generation of pop-ups and downers. It also refers to the blues, to jazz, and to classical music alongside a host of subtly eclectic composers, pickers, and partners-in-charms.
Blue Rodeo, unlike many of its contemporaries, constantly surveys the musical landscape defining and refining its trademark sound, playing around in uncharted territory, disregarding labels, and looking beyond formulaic formats. Live and in the studio, each Blue Rodeon keeps an eye on the action and an ear on the results; hence, the band not only makes tremendous music, it also goes the distance in terms of lyrics, melodies, harmonies, vocalisation, instrumentation, presentation, and production values. For most acts, product dominates process; for Blue Rodeo, one equals the other. Five will keep you alive.
And, although Blue Rodeo's sound covers the spectrum, its colour, depth, and texture derive from the band's refusal to toe the "product" line. When referred to as a country band, individual members respond with the fact that much of their music is progressive rock; when referred to as a rock-'n'-roll outfit, the same members point out that much of the music's centred in country stylings. It may be the collective bucks at the notion of being tied down; or, it may simply be that both statements ring true: Many speak highly of its artistic integrity and honourable aims; a handful of whingers point out its bullheadededness in the face of clearly defined rules, charts, and pecking orders. But, call it what you will, play it as often as you can, and steer clear of stars rising and falling by the book.
So, where does Blue Rodeo come from? Nowhere. Elsewhere. Everywhere. Bazil Donovan, a classic case in point, provides a clue to Blue Rodeo's desire to avoid the confinement of definition. When the bassist began in the business, he paid his dues "in a lot of country bands. I just showed up and played. The Edgewater. The Gerrard. The Silver Dollar. All the good spots.
"At the time, my heart was set in rock but my fingers were in country. The rent was paid through country music; but, I still wanted to be a rock musician. Then, the more I played country to make a living, the more my love for country began to grow. It was very strange at first. My rock friends couldn't understand how I could be so into Merle Haggard. I couldn't understand how I couldn't be. I listen to country radio, to 820-CHAM (Hamilton, ON). The way I see it, I have my feet in both oceans."
Mark French, daemonic drummer par excellence, sees it similarly. He worked in a toy factory long enough to finance his drums and lessons. Later, he fronted a Queen-Street ensemble, The Cartwrights, on weekends while playing for "hardcore country bands through the week. I thought it was better to play six nights than to work a nine-to-five job I hated. I had a lot of fun in those places. You name it, I saw it. I learned a lot. I serenaded the big bad world."
During one of those serenades, the eldest (Keelor) and youngest (Wiseman) B-R members caught a set of French and liked his attack. When Anderson exited (for family reasons), French entered. He hasn't slowed down since. "Everything happened so fast. A movie. A dream. It was scary. It felt like I was picked up off the street by a helicopter, whisked here and there, thrown into this family that had adopted me. It was kind of like, at first, 'Where in the hell am I? Who are these guys?'"
One of these guys — Bob, Bobby, Robert, or Wildman Wiseman — until he joined Blue Rodeo, "played music by myself from the time I was an embryo." Classically trained with strong leanings toward improvisational jazz, Wiseman says he "wouldn't mind being referred to as a dude. I'm a stick-to-himself kind of dude. The music in my bones is Tijuana-polka-hay-jazz."
That may be true; however, Wiseman's musical acumen, sense of timing, and intuitive understanding of each instrument he plays (including harmonica, organ, and accordion) produce an almost supernaturally eerie sound, a sound so unforgettably concentrated his contribution to the overall effect of Rodeo compositions cannot be ignored. In near-precocity, he explains his abilities this way: "Timing? Okay, let's talk about timing. It's a funny thing. I'm just being musical. I just want to fit what they're singing lyrically."
What they're singing lyrically, on each release, is the end result of a collaborative effort that began when Cuddy and Keelor met at North Toronto Collegiate. Apparently, Keelor tackled Cuddy on the football field in a way reminiscent of biker brawls. Cuddy objected. Keelor fell in line. Sort of. It's been that way ever since.
The sun falls below the treeline. The air hums with ghosts of chords knotted together in the show's crescendo. French smiles expansively and waits for the rest of the guys. Donovan saunters towards French. Wiseman remains onstage overseeing instruments and gear disappearing into a cavernous truck. Cuddy, animated and strangely energised, engages in a conversation with the rhythm section. And Keelor? He's looking for something in the beat-up Caddy.
All eyes, save Wiseman's, are looking for Keelor. Cuddy says something about him doing it again. French concurs. Donovan squints.
Keelor, it seems, hogged too much solo time. The rest of the members want him to know. They tell him. He looks at them. He looks to be listening. He grins, turns, and nonchalently traipses towards the car. "V-r-r-roooom! V-r-r-rooom, v-r-r-room! Let's go!"
"Listen," Cuddy says later, "I tell you. I have always worked. I have always worked in my life. Keelor has never worked. Never. We always find ourselves in the same position. I don't know how it happens to Greg; but, he is a lucky star. He is un-fucking-believable."
"You know," Keelor says later, "we're best friends. I knew Jim before I played guitar. Part of the reason I play guitar is because of Jim. We're lucky. I think part of it is that Jim's a really good singer; where it works well is that if I'm singing the lead and he sings the harmony on top, he can follow me very well. I could never follow him. I don't have the ear for it. I'm not the greatest harmony singer in the world. Jim's really good."
Cuddy candidly reveals the weakness in the Cuddy/Keelor collaborative approach: "Until Pete Anderson [who, incidentally, also produces The Duke of Cool], we've always felt the producer's favoured one over the other. Always. That's caused a lot of rifts. Greg and I have very different ideas about what the band should do. At the end of last year, we decided to stop playing for a while, to write songs. Greg really wanted to retreat from the band, to not be identified with us. That was hard on me. He didn't want to get together or play or anything. I would sit there and think, 'What am I going to do now?' That's when I did all my writing for Casino."
"We'd just come off the road," explains Keelor, "and I didn't want to rehearse. There's a bit of a withdrawal thing that happens. I didn't want to do anything. Before I start writing music, I have to be inspired as a person. I can't sit down and just start pumping out a song. You come off the road and you go, 'Okay, now what am I going to do?' I relaxed, vegged out; then, I started work on Casino."
It's been said members of Blue Rodeo are, for the most part, "nice and normal guys." Okay. The band's remarkably free of the usual star-trip stuff; but, normal? Not on your life. Normal guys don't take the best from both country (up-front vocals) and rock-'n'-roll (virtuoso musicianship) and turn it into an album the quality of Casino. Nope. And again, normal guys don't particularly care if their names are in lights, if their shows are captured in moving pictures or, most keenly, if they're sending sonic postcards from the cutting edge of music.
But, normal? Not in this life.
"True Blue Rodeo," originally featured in Country's December/January 1991 issue, embarrassed Jim Cuddy when he was queried about the glow-job given the band by yours truly by a MuchMusic VJ. Natch, knowing that, its writer worked hard to remember big girls don't care . . . much. © 1991-2009 Judith Fitzgerald. All Electronic Rights Reserved.