“Ain’t no mystery what I need / Is understanding / And your sweet sympathy / A steel string guitar and a little weed / And someone to keep me company / Someone to keep me company” (“Stage Door”).
I’m not going to rehash many of the tales I’ve shared here over the years about my passion for the music of Toronto’s Blue Rodeo – a band I discovered back in the mid-90s, courtesy of the ‘newly launched’ CMT channel on UK satellite TV. I vaguely remember a weekly show where rocks meets country, but cannot recall the title of the first Blue Rodeo song that was broadcast at the time – likely a cut from the 1993 “Five Days In July” album. I was instantly hooked.
I won’t repeat those stories of how I loved the Nashville country music revival from around the early-mid 90s (especially having been raised in a traditional country music loving household as a youngster), but quickly soured on the shift towards country-pop as the decade drew to a close. Disillusioned once more with ‘my’ musical tastes being absorbed into the mainstream, Blue Rodeo provided an escape, transporting this listener to the world of what would later be classified as ‘Americana’ music. This was not just a place where rock meets country, but parties with a little folk, jazz, roots, soul, and blues too.
Several years would pass before the opportunity to see Blue Rodeo perform live would arise. Just a few weeks prior to a planned Canadian weekend excursion, we saw a show advertised in the very city which we planned to visit, and the dates fell in line too – talk about fate! With tickets bought, the show was everything (and more) than we ever expected – we were suddenly infected with the Blue Rodeo bug. Many more concerts would follow, eventually leading to the arrival of this little online journal of ours – and if the name of this blog is not lost on you, well, you get it – you’re a fan of the guys from Toronto too. If you don’t get it – well, I guess it just Hasn’t Hit you Yet.
Drafting recaps of each Blue Rodeo concert we attend is something I very much enjoy, always looking for something different to report about each particular event, for something new to share about each show. The band never disappoints, but skim those recaps and you’ll quickly find something that seldom changes from show to show – the set list. This is by no means a critique! Here, we have a band with 35+ years of music behind them, and their devoted fans have certain expectations – they want to hear the hits, hear the songs that drew them into the world of Blue Rodeo too. The band often revisits an older tune for a short while, or mix in a recent cut to keep things fresh, but I’m sure that I speak for many when wishing that sometimes… just sometimes, we’d get to experience some of those songs seldom heard.
Blue Rodeo were clearly tuned into the frequency of such thoughts, leaving many of us frantically gasping for air late last year when formally announcing a unique, upcoming one-night-only “Songs Seldom Heard” concert – to take place in late February at none other than the iconic Massey Hall in the heart of their home city. Who had time to be skeptical of the potential travel conditions? Who cared that southern Ontario could be a frozen, uninhabitable Arctic tundra come late February? Given how quickly the tickets were snapped up for this ‘chance-of-a-lifetime’ event, come hell or high water, Blue Rodeo fans from across Canada and the US were ready to converge on Shuter Street.
Following an outstanding opening set from the recently formed vintage-country duo Brooks & Bowskill (expect to see a subsequent recap here soon) – featuring the now-full-time Blue Rodeo band member, Jimmy Bowskill – once the Massey Hall lights dimmed, the audible whoops and hollers further accentuated the pent-up anticipation rushing through the veins of the packed room. I’m proud to confess my own surge of goosebumps as this rare event unfolded, this truly was going to be an epic show for the ages. And as the rising of the stage lights brought the band into full view, we saw our seven favorite musicians make their way to their predetermined spots – Glenn Milchem (drums), Bazil Donovan (bass), Mike Boguski (keys/accordion), Jimmy Bowskill (guitar/mandolin/violin/pedal steel/vocals), Colin Cripps (guitars/vocals), and Jim Cuddy (guitars/mandolin/harmonica/vocals) – with the first, incredibly welcomed surprise courtesy of Greg Keelor (guitars/vocals). You could not fail to hear the gasps throughout the room, followed by cries of disbelief, and as heard in our section of the upper balcony alone, the solid statement that “Greg’s gone electric!!!”
Greg Keelor’s long-term battle with severe tinnitus is no secret, largely restricting him to performing with just an acoustic guitar from his far side of the stage – so excuse the adrenaline rush many of us shared by this rare sighting of the electric variety strapped over his shoulder, and his charming, rebellious nature on full display. “Thanks a lot folks, thanks for coming out to hear all the old songs,” he would share. “We really appreciate it.” Greg would also take the honor of leading off the show, letting those lovely electric guitar riffs ring out as the band delivered “Outskirts,” the title track from their 1987 debut album – one they would revisit five times during the show. “So, there’s a picture we’ve all seen / It was taken in the lobby of the L.A. Ambassador Hotel / It’s the silhouette of a man in another’s arms / So turn off your TVs, and let that train go home / ‘Cause everyone warned you that California / Wasn’t goin’ to be the end / California wasn’t gonna be the end.”
Hearing Keelor perform “Piranha Pool” was a bucket-list item for me – and sure, while this track has made the occasional set list over the last few years, never had it been included during the shows we happened to attend. “This is an old song from our first record,” Greg would announce. “I think this was written for Ronald Reagan, if I remember correctly, and that was like the beginning of this neo-fascist movement that has started in conservative politics throughout the world.” Mike Boguski flawlessly delivered the signature keyboard introduction, before all of his bandmates kicked in to perform this classic love-it-or-loathe-it number. Team Love here, all the way!!!
Not to be outdone, co-vocalist Jim Cuddy would also shine throughout the evening – digging into their 1989 “Diamond Mine” on numerous occasions to revisit “How Long,” “Now And Forever,” and House Of Dreams” from their sophomore release. The vocal harmonies from Cuddy and Keeler were noticed immediately during “How Long,” and were joined very quickly from many in the room as the chorus rang out. “It’s funny to be doing a brand-new set,” Jim would later declare. “It’s very exciting, and though we’re laughing, we’re so excited.” Cuddy would also toss in a pair of surprises of his own, notably “Already Gone,” and the vintage country-leaning “Blew It Again,” complete with a breezy change of pace fueled by Mike’s bouncing keys and Jimmy’s mastery of the pedal steel.
“Late in the evening, I’m up in my room / Trying to think of nothing clear away the day / I lie awake and let my body wander / Up into the moonlight floating away.” With the instantly recognizable riff to open “Better Off As We Are,” Cuddy whipped the crowd into a frenzy with a trifecta of up-tempo favorites. “I’m going to dedicate this next one to my father who’s been gone a long time, but he faced his end with such bravery,” he shared. “This is called Walk Like You Don’t Mind. Let’s go!!!” Beckoning for the fans to rise to their feet, Jim would invite Toronto jazz saxophonist Chris Gale to accompany the band for this number, and the crowd responded with plenty of enthusiasm. As Chris departed the stage, Cuddy progressed immediately into the solo cut on this night from the latest “Many A Mile” album, knocking out an amazing performance of “Never Like This Before” – one that I discussed during an interview with Jim in December 2021, and at the time mentioned how this is a perfect candidate for the live scene, with Glenn’s pounding drum rhythm, Colin’s ringing guitar, and the toe-tapping rock beat. Hearing this one live for the first time, Blue Rodeo knocked it out of the park.
With minimal rehearsal opportunities, the band had a few miscues at times – all taken in their stride, complete with moments of amusement between Keeler and Cuddy. “Now this song we haven’t done in a long, long time,” Greg announced, following one such occurrence, before the ensuing ringing guitar introduction signaled the arrival of “Side Of The Road” – another bucket-list tune of mine. “I started singing this song in my head / Just because the sun was high shining bright / And I could smell the fresh cut grass / As I looked up to the blue-white sky / And your eyes they were in my mind / And I just want to hold on to you.” It also did not go unnoticed from our seat up in the rafters that somebody down on the floor hollered “Blue” during Greg’s initial use of the word during the song – and what a great vantage point we had to soak up the lead guitar duties from Jimmy Bowskill, demonstrating just why the band sought to add this versatile musician full-time to their roster.
With a performance of “Floating,” we experienced firsthand the rousing chorus delivered in perfect tandem by both lead vocalists. “Just throw me a line / That’s all that I ask / Well, it’s sink or swim and I’m going fast / I need love and it’s you / And I feel like William Holden floating in a pool.” And how about the extended keyboard solo here from Mike too? “It’s sorta funny folks, you know sometimes you tell a story about a song and why you wrote it. Well, I wrote these so long ago, I can’t remember why I wrote them,” Greg joked later that evening, reveling in the response from those before him. “I must have been sad.” Bassist Bazil Donovan would take a seated position during this time, before Keelor invited Brittany Brooks to join the band on stage for another surprise piece, “What Is This Love.” A popular ballad from the “Five Days in July” album, Brittany handled the vocal harmonies originally recorded by Canadian treasure Sarah McLachlan with ease – while Jimmy’s hauntingly beautiful work on the violin added extra sentimental depth to this number.
Following a rendition of “Moon And Tree” – another surprise addition from their “Tremolo” album – Greg thanked the crowd once more for allowing the band to dig deep into these lesser played pieces. Jim quickly added that “we’re moving from seldom heard to often heard,” transitioning with the familiar rings of “Til I Am Myself Again” to kick off a six-track blitz (three to close the set, plus three encore tunes) of hits we all know and love. The energy level in the room surged like a tsunami from this moment, as die-hard fans soaked up “Five Days in May” (Colin going all-out with the lengthy closing guitar solo), “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet,” and of course, Cuddy’s timeless piano ballad, “Try.”
Knowing too well that we were ready for the arrival of “Lost Together” – always a bittersweet moment where the amazing singalong track is also the vessel which draws the evening to a close – Blue Rodeo surprised us all with one final, and very unexpected ‘ace’ from up their sleeve. Bringing Chris Gale back out to add saxophone once more – yes, that was a nice touch. Having Brooks & Bowskill duet one last time to perform the obligatory second verse – yes, that’s a given. But capping the evening by… drum roll please… inviting Nova Scotian musician and fan favorite Matt Mays from the wings to join them on-stage for this last hurrah – no, we never saw that coming. And to top it all, Mays would not just add harmonies – never in my wildest dreams would my ‘Blue Rodeo bingo card’ have a spot for Greg Keelor yields ownership of the third verse to Matt Mays – how about you?
The “Songs Seldom Heard” concert at Massey Hall not only lived up to the hype surrounding it, the performance obliterated any preconceived notions that I had about what to expect. Naturally, there was a wish-list of songs I would have loved to hear – just like every person in the sold-out venue – but as we all discovered this band at different times in our lives, we all have our opinions and favorites. The set had plenty of variety and the energy was strong – these seven musicians all clearly having fun and enjoying this rare opportunity to blow the dust off some older tunes once more (for some of the band, their first time too). A show of this magnitude may or may not ever take place again, but for those of us who experienced it, Blue Rodeo certainly whet our appetites to hear many more lesser played tracks in the future. “Venus Rising” still sits atop my bucket list – hope springs eternal, as they say.
Set List (Album):
- Outskirts (Outskirts)
- How Long (Diamond Mine)
- Piranha Pool (Outskirts)
- Cynthia (Five Days in July)
- Already Gone (Lost Together)
- Love and Understanding (Diamond Mine)
- Now and Forever (Diamond Mine)
- Side of the Road (Nowhere To Here)
- Blew It Again (Nowhere To Here)
- Floating (Outskirts)
- House of Dreams (Diamond Mine)
- Joker’s Wild (Outskirts)
- What Is This Love (ft. Brittany Brooks) (Five Days in July)
- Better Off As We Are (Nowhere To Here)
- Stage Door (Palace of Gold)
- Walk Like You Don’t Mind (ft. Chris Gale) (Palace of Gold)
- Never Like This Before (Many A Mile)
- Moon and Tree (Tremolo)
- Til I Am Myself Again (Casino)
- 5 Days in May (Five Days in July)
- Hasn’t Hit Me Yet (Five Days in July)
- You’re Everywhere (Casino)
- Try (Outskirts)
- Lost Together (ft. Matt Mays) (Lost Together)
Photo Credit: Brenda Epstein (thanks Brenda – was great to finally meet you)
Official Poster Credit: Blue Rodeo Website.