Blue Rodeo extra-ordinary super-natural
Calling music “timeless” is a high compliment, but when it comes to the timeless Blue Rodeo, it’s like we’re lost together in a time warp.
Hear just a few notes and – BAM – back to college you go. They never change! It’s like that moment in the vampire film where they realize the main character hasn’t aged. Definitely something super-natural going on there.
Again, like clockwork, Blue Rodeo comes for two shows at the Jubilee Auditorium, Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 20-21. Two years ago, it was two shows at the Jube. Two years before that it was two shows at the Jube. And then two shows at the Jube. Either that or appearances on the main stage at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. And then two shows at the Jube.
Such a rock steady draw is unusual. Most popular bands go up and down, from clubs to halls to arenas to halls to clubs to casinos. Behold the cycle of life! Blue Rodeo’s career, meanwhile, has been a flatline of upper-middling success for more than 20 years.
Bassist Bazil Donovan offers a simple explanation: “If you’ve got a bunch of good songs and you’re just an honest band and make good music, there will be people who want to come and hear you. There’s no gimmick.”
Sound so obvious, doesn’t it?
There are other reasons Blue Rodeo is so dependable. They fit into no other country-rock universe but their own, dissimilar to both the mainstream country movement and its ironic alt-country cousin. They don’t look the part, either. They appear as ordinary dudes you might meet at Schanks. Jim Cuddy is Mr. Regular, the Canadian Chris Isaak, a dad who plays hockey; and though his frequently bearded songwriting partner Greg Keelor comes off a bit “out there,” he doesn’t boast a shred of rock star flamboyance. Their very plainness made Blue Rodeo stand out in the hurdy-gurdy world of the 1980s Toronto music scene from whence they came.
“Right from the beginning we always felt like the odd man out,” Donovan says. “We’d show up at these festivals, people would see us standing around and they’d never guess we were in a band. They all had these get ups, but we didn’t really look like rock stars – and then they’d see us go on stage. I think that served us well over the years as we got older because those rock star things become harder to pull off.”
Part of it is the timeless (there’s that word again) appeal of the music itself. Everly Brotherly songs about love prevail, whether one must Try, or celebrate holding hands with your loved one on the beach during five days in May or July, whenever it is; or ponder on the human condition after some unspecified trauma while waiting till you are yourself again.
Blue Rodeo has never been known as a political band, another reason for steady longevity – with one recent notable exception: Stealing All of My Dreams. The song was written in an anti-Harper snit last fall, and does not resort to subtle innuendo. It even sort of rhymes: “Your pipeline will spill its disease, you shut down all the research libraries, and you muzzled all the white coats in your laboratories, then you set your sights on the CBC,” and so on. Months later, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won the election. Coincidence? Yes.
Still worth doing, Donovan says: “There was a collective agreement in our band that we just had to say something. We felt he was doing away with a lot of things that were dear to us, so we thought let’s just add our two cents in. Not that we have any power or anything. People always talk about rock stars shooting their mouths off, and we got the same kind of blowback: ‘Just shut up and sing.’ But we’re not Rage Against the Machine.”
Maybe that’s why it seemed to mean more. Neil Young, you expect it. But when The Everyman Canadian Band decides to get political, you know there’s a change in the wind.
OK, they have changed. They were made Officers of the Order of Canada. They added master guitarist Colin Cripps as a permanent member, so now they’re a seven-piece. They’re always trying new things. When bands come around this often, they tend to put in more effort to make their biannual gigs special. Last time through town Jim’s son Devin Cuddy opened the show with a tasty New Orleans stew. (He also just happens to be playing the Mercury Room on Jan. 20, so expect a surprise guest appearance at either gig.) Blue Rodeo tours on its latest release, Live at Massey Hall – one of a limited number of “get out of jail free” cards recording artists are issued in their careers (giving a much needed break from the grueling recording-touring cycle), the other being the greatest hits album, and Blue Rodeo’s done two. And finally, they will, Donovan promises, perform “a couple” of new songs from a forthcoming album. “Not too many. We don’t want to bombard people with too much material.”
One of them is called Superstar. It might be ironic.