For our third and final night of our annual Thanksgiving weekend adventure in southern Ontario, we found ourselves back at The Sanderson Centre in downtown Brantford. As our last night to be spent in the province for 2018, this one was going to be special, especially as Blue Rodeo were in town too. Long time readers of this blog know only too well that this combination of band and venue gave birth to Great Dark Wonder, and with just a little over two years since that amazing night, we were ready to do it all again and end our Canadian weekend with a bang.
The opening duties for this event would be handed to Ennismore, ON native Melissa Payne; an artist with whom we had no familiarity, but after a 35 minute set, had earned many new fans in the process. Joined onstage by her band, Melissa performed nine original tracks, demonstrating some well crafted songs and catchy melodies. Drawn immediately to her raspy vocals and ‘Ontario drawl,’ Payne earned the attention of the sold-out venue, warming up the room with ease through her electrifying folk-country music. Whether bouncing around the stage with her guitar in hand, or rocking a mean fiddle whilst balancing on a bass drum, Melissa’s energy level never wavered. And with a selection of tracks that included “High and Dry,” “Bring Me Back,” and her recent release, “September Skies,” these musical choices allowed her to change the tempo back and forth throughout the set.
Conversing with the audience came naturally to Melissa, offering tales of her small town upbringing, and comedic references to being related to almost everybody in Ennismore. “It’s true, I have 48 first cousins back home,” she shared. Switching from lighthearted banter to heavy-hearted in a swift moment, Payne turned the clapping and cheering to silence when sharing her tale of her nine-year old niece being diagnosed with leukemia. You could hear a pin drop during this somber moment, and only after Melissa delivered a stunning version of “Strong Heart,” in honor of her niece, did the applause and appreciation from the room return. With her emotional rollercoaster of a set wrapped up after a stunning instrumental number, her standing ovation was incredibly well-earned.
Following a brief intermission, the gradual dimming of the Sanderson Centre lights signaled that it was time for the main event. And making their way onstage to a thunderous ovation from their loyal fans, band members Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor took their respective positions and thanked everybody for attending the show. Just a few short bursts of the harmonica by Cuddy, and the familiar introduction to “Five Days In May” would fill the room, resulting in many more cheers and applause from those who were ready to enjoy the eight-minute plus live version of this classic hit. In the absence of occasional band member Jimmy Bowskill (on tour in Europe with The Sheepdogs), both guitarist Colin Cripps and pianist/accordionist Mike Boguski would see plenty of additional responsibilities on this night, during those moments where violin or pedal steel are often the norm.
As can always be expected with Blue Rodeo, there were few changes to their well known current set list. But this is the ONE band that does so with zero complaints from those who snap up tickets to their shows. It’s easy to understand why, given that there are so many popular song choices from their catalog that fans consistently expect to hear. Concertgoers know what they want, what to expect, and the band always deliver. And while one or two tweaks may surprise all every now and then, for this band to increase their repertoire would mean having to perform non-stop for over three hours, or sacrifice some mainstays that would alienate many of those loyal fans.
With a barrage of popular hits, Blue Rodeo were on fire all evening, cranking out fifteen tracks, before returning for three more numbers during their obligatory encore. And with bassist Bazil Donovan taking time to share his popular Dean Martin cover during the encore, both Cuddy and Keelor had a pretty even split in the primary lead vocal duties through the night (for those keeping count, 8 for Cuddy and 9 for Keelor, respectively). Jim naturally included fan favorites such as “Bad Timing,” “After The Rain,” and the smash hit, “Try.” Not to be outdone, Greg would thrill all with “Cynthia,” “What Am I Doing Here?” and “You’re Everywhere.” And for this particular fan, the return of “Disappear” to the lineup was amazing to witness as always, including some revision to the piano solo by Boguski, before Bazil’s bass and Glenn Milchem’s rhythm brought all three guitarists to the edge of the stage for a jam-fest as the lights above them returned.
We had been informed that on the previous night, the crowd were up and permanently out of their seats by the time Blue Rodeo were four songs into the show. The Saturday night crowd were much more subdued in comparison, needing extra encouragement from the band to eventually turn this into a party. And it would be Greg Keelor that would act as instigator here, clearly heard informing the band to make an on-the-fly change to the set, before launching immediately into his prog-rock classic, “Diamond Mine.” Receiving plenty of cheers and applause at the close of the song, Keelor opted to be a little more direct with the still-seated audience. “I just want you let you know, good people of Brantford, that last night the people were dancing long before this,” he stated in an address to the room. “Just so you know, sit on your hands, do what you want, I’m just letting you know Doug Ford’s thinking of you.” I can’t speak for the entire venue at this particular moment, but in our immediate vicinity, seat cushions became redundant pretty much after that.
As soon as Jim Cuddy exchanged his guitar for the mandolin, the room knew exactly what to expect. As Cuddy and Keelor stood front and center, those brief familiar riffs signaled the arrival of “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet,” and as is customary, the audience would perform the opening verse in unison, with a little guidance from the best two cheerleaders in the house. And cue the explosions as the band kicked in, and as Keelor took up his spot behind the microphone once more to deliver this always popular closing number. Indeed, Keelor had been on form all evening; visibly playing along on his acoustic guitar (in lieu of simply strumming chord progressions), and joining his fellow bandmates on their side of the stage much more frequently than usual. As for Cuddy, he naturally delivered his tunes as flawlessly as ever, yet also had a chance to shine with some meatier guitar solos (“Diamond Mine” being one example).
With the encore almost complete, everybody had a chance for a final hurrah during “Lost Together,” which brought Melissa Payne and her band back on to the stage for the grand finale too. Having heard so many guest musicians tackle the second verse, I must confess that Melissa’s raspy vocals sounded phenomenal whilst entrusted with this responsibility. With the crowd completely fired up at this point, everybody on stage was clearly having fun, living in the moment and sharing something special with those standing before them. And after one last bass solo from Donovan, the final chorus was completed, and all eyes were on Keelor to hear his always gracious closing remarks. “We’ll see ya down the road,” he stated, and for the majority of those at the Sanderson Centre on this Saturday night, the chance to do this all again cannot come around again soon enough.
Blue Rodeo Set List:
- Five Days In May
- I Can’t Hide This Anymore
- What Am I Doing Here?
- Rain Down On Me
- Rose Coloured Glasses
- Head Over Heels
- Bad Timing
- The Railroad (Lee Hazlewood cover)
- After The Rain
- Diamond Mine
- You’re Everywhere
- Til I Am Myself Again
- Hasn’t Hit Me Yet
- Little Ole Wine Drinker Me (Dean Martin cover)
- Lost Together