One commonly asked question we receive from new visitors to our blog is about our name. Great Dark Wonder – what is that? Where did that name come from? How does it relate to Canadian music? Long-time fans of popular Canadian band Blue Rodeo need no explanation about these three words, but for those of you a little less familiar with this popular alt-country group, the words form part of the final bridge found in their iconic 1993 tune, “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet.” We are huge fans of Blue Rodeo, and it was a chance back-stage encounter back in 2016 with several members of the band that inspired us to start this little online journal of ours. So, when Blue Rodeo make headlines, you know we’re going to write about and share such news with you.
We made our last visit to Canadian soil back in February 2020, shortly before the world as we knew it came crashing down all around us. Blue Rodeo were on tour, and we had tickets in hand to catch them live in Hamilton, ON that particular weekend; to soak up the spectacular two-hour show that these seven talented musicians perform time and time again. Never in our wildest dreams did we consider that live music events as we know them would soon disappear, that international borders would close, and that a global crisis would turn everybody’s world upside down. And yet through all of this chaos and uncertainty, the musicians we love and cherish have helped keep us sane through their music, fighting the good fight to bring us together virtually and online with music events and shows. This past Friday evening, our favorite seven guys from Toronto graced the stage at the Danforth Music Hall, and gave us all a huge morale boost through their generous serving of live music, offering glimmers of hope that we are seeing some light at the end of this never-ending tunnel.
As the livestream commenced, those seven familiar faces appeared on our screens. It felt so refreshing to see the band back together for the first time in over a year. Jim Cuddy (guitars/mandolin/harmonica/vocals), Greg Keelor (guitar/vocals) and Bazil Donovan (bass), three of the founding band members were joined by regular bandmates Glenn Milchem (drums), Mike Boguski (keyboards/accordion), Colin Cripps (guitars/vocals) and frequent touring companion Jimmy Bowskill (mandolin/pedal steel/violin); and collectively, they put on a performance that their fans have come to expect each and every time. “Oh, hello everybody out there in TV land, internet land,” announced Jim once the stream commenced. “We’ve been waiting a long time to do this, we appreciate your patience … but here we are, and we’re all very glad to be playing for you.”
Bursting immediately into “Five Days In May,” the eighteen-song set list proved to be pretty much as expected, lest we remember that Blue Rodeo have not shared a stage together in over a year, yet still pulled off this ‘almost’ two-hour show with no fuss, no issues, and no sign of rust in their abilities. Yes, there have been mentions of new music in the works from band members on social media, but it was unfair to expect anything new to be shared just yet, and the band stuck to their standard successful formula for most of the show, although it was nice to see the lesser-played track “Candice” performed, along with the return of “Dark Angel,” where only Keelor and Boguski remain on stage for this one. Seeing the official set list on their social media page following the show, “Fools Like You” was literally a last-minute addition – handwritten amongst the typed pre-determined choices – and naturally afforded both Keelor and Cuddy the opportunity to raise awareness of some current Canadian issues.
“It was written about thirty years ago when [former Prime Minister] Brian Mulroney was trying to pass the Meech Lake Accord, and it was sort of like this repatriation of our constitution, trying to get Quebec to join because they had reneged at the beginning,” Greg shared. “There was no mention of the native people in this new document, and it’s sort of outrageous to think, but it’s just a good example of how the systemic racism existed in this country for so long.” “Give back to the native / Their treaty land / What you preach you preach for others / Why don’t you practice that firsthand,” he would belt out shortly after. “So, anyways, it goes to the Manitoba legislature and it needs a unanimous vote to pass, and the very brave and righteous [previous Minister of Aboriginal Affairs for Manitoba] Elijah Harper stood up with his eagle feather and said no three times,” he added. “And so, this song is a celebration of that defiance and I’d like to sing it in the face of [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau and the ongoing hypocrisy of our treatment of the native people in this country.”
Jim Cuddy picked up on another sensitive topic that has dominated both Canadian and international media recently. “The discovery of the remains of 215 children in a western residential school [near Kamloops] is an all too frequent reminder of the cruelty of our past,” he stated following Keelor’s lead. “I just don’t understand / This world of mine / I must be out of touch / Or out of my mind / And will the profits of destruction / Forever make your eyes blind?” “We want to offer our First Nations brothers and sisters our deepest sympathy and our hope that proper acknowledgement and reparations will follow, and as we all know, there’s a lot of healing ahead.”
The beauty of any Blue Rodeo live show is that while you know Jim Cuddy will be out there at the forefront, his calm demeanor and smile ever present, you never know which personality his friend and co-vocalist Greg Keelor shall bring until a handful of songs into the show. This past Friday night, Keelor brought his A-game, engaging frequently with tales about playing “empty rooms” (this was a virtual event – no crowd were permitted into The Danforth Music Hall), and joining his front-line band mates frequently on Colin’s side of the stage to jam (Greg suffers with tinnitus, hence his separation on stage from the electric guitars and percussion). Prior to “Cynthia,” he even took time to add a slight twist to an old tale that precedes the song, much to the amusement of Cuddy. “This is a song about an old girlfriend of Jim’s named Cynthia … [and] I always sort of dreamed that maybe I could make out with her … and it never really happened, except for once,” he shared, pausing due to Cuddy’s laughter. “This is a song about getting high, and watching UFOs in the Rocky Mountains, and [back] then, people thought you were a lunatic if you said that.”
It was evident throughout the evening that each and every musician up on stage was having a great time, savoring this opportunity to not only congregate together, but to perform these songs once more, and share their camaraderie. “I hope you’re all comfortable at home in your sweats, outside in your shorts, a nice drink in hand,” offered Cuddy. “Boy, that sounds good.” And Jim would shine, as always, delivering up popular up-tempo numbers such as “Til I Am Myself Again” and “Head Over Heels,” before slowing things down with timeless Blue Rodeo classics such as “Bad Timing” and “Try.” Keelor would not be outdone, taking the lead on epic pieces such as “Disappear” and “Diamond Mine,” before watching Cuddy walk up to him, mandolin in hand, for the regular set closing tune we all know and love. “So, this is a weird one to sing to an empty room, ‘cause for years I haven’t sang this song, you guys always sing it,” Keelor admitted. “And I just wait and sing the last chorus, you guys do all the singing. So, we’ll see what happens.” Needless to say, the band brought every ounce of their remaining energy to flawlessly deliver this crowd favorite.
And as the lights dimmed to signal the moment the band would take their hiatus, before returning to the cheers and applause for a few more tunes, there was no need to pause, and the stage was illuminated pretty quickly for a two-song encore. “Like Greg said earlier, thank you very much for tuning in,” offered Cuddy. “We haven’t played in a long time, but it certainly is fun to get back together and play, and you know, it looks like the clouds are clearing and we’ll be able to be out performing in the not too-distant future, so I look forward to that.” Cue the performance of “Try,” with Cuddy on acoustic guitar (he often performs this on piano), before Mike Boguski’s haunting keys signaled the arrival of the finale, and much-loved Canadian classic, “Lost Together.” Attend any regular Blue Rodeo concert, and the opening artist is typically invited to join them on-stage for this number, and to take the lead during the second verse. But with no opening act on this given night, the duty fell to guitarist Colin Cripps, who absolutely nailed the part, and his voice never sounding better: “Stand before this faceless crowd / I wonder why I bother / So much controlled by so few / Stumbling from one disaster to another / I’ve heard it all so many times before / It’s all a dream to me now, a dream to me now.” And how relevant those few lines happened to be, as these seven musicians played their heart out to a faceless crowd, yet did so with the same eagerness, enjoyment, intensity and sheer exhilaration of playing a sold-out venue.
For a virtual broadcast, the audio and visual elements of this concert were top-notch. Studio quality sound and professional camera work, with multiple angles and close-ups of the instrumentation at all of the right times. Each and every musician was on form, and Blue Rodeo delivered the goods as always! And as is customary at the close of a Blue Rodeo concert, Greg Keelor thanked everybody outside of the band. As is customary, Greg Keelor filled each and every one of us with renewed optimism once more, as he made his promise to see us down the road. Next time, I truly hope that it shall be a packed room full of music fans that hear those immortal lines to end the evening. Better yet, I hope that we and our good friends are in attendance too.
- Five Days In May
- I Can’t Hide This Anymore
- What Am I Doing Here?
- Head Over Heels
- Bad Timing
- Fools Like You
- Diamond Mine
- Dark Angel
- Til I Am Myself Again
- The Railroad (Lee Hazelwood cover)
- After The Rain
- You’re Everywhere (Rock Revival)
- Hasn’t Hit Me Yet
- Lost Together