Wednesday, December 19th, 2007
This past year has been a kind of crazy musical wayback machine for me, what with seeing live so many of the bands that were crucial to developing my tastes back in my salad days. What with shows from Sloan and the reunited Buffalo Tom earlier this year and just this past month, an epic Neil Young show and the final Lowest Of The Low gig. If nothing else, it’s confirmed that I had some pretty kick-ass taste for a 17-year old.
Capping it all off was Monday night’s super-intimate show from Toronto roots-rock stalwarts Blue Rodeo at the Horseshoe as part of the bar’s 60th anniversary. To give you a sense of scale, the ‘Shoe holds around 350 and Blue Rodeo have two nights booked at the 2750-capacity Massey Hall for next February. That’s how big this band and small the club is. So yeah, it was pretty packed.
But before I get into the gig review, the obligatory personal content paragraph. I was actually surprised to find I’d covered some of this over four years ago but I’ll recap the key points – they were my first big rock show and the setting for the formation of my first band in high school (to the roar of them covering Neil’s “Like A Hurricane”, I might add) and we covered a number of Blue Rodeo songs during our short run and were probably our best tunes. In short, they were huge for me for a good long while though I gradually lost touch with them around the turn of the century. They seemed to have settled into a musical comfort zone and didn’t seem to be offering much on their new records that I couldn’t get from the eight or so already in my collection.
But considering I hadn’t seen them live since that pivotal June evening back in 1993 and a gig at the ‘Shoe was far more my speed than their usual amphitheatre-scale venues, there was more than a little anticipation on my part for this show. The format for the evening was to be no opener and three sets from the band – a marathon by anyone’s standards. They were also calling it an “’80s Throwback” show, in reference to the days when Blue Rodeo were the kings of Queen St and spent many a night plying their trade on the Horseshoe stage and which boded well for me since I don’t know hardly any of their more recent material.
And sure enough, after opening with a track from their latest album Small Miracles (which is pretty much Blue Rodeo by numbers which is good or bad depending on your POV) , they went right into “Diamond Mine” and yeah – I knew I was going to enjoy this. All the albums I knew by heart – Outskirts, Diamond Mine, Casino, Lost Together and Five Days In July – were well represented and they even drew on one of my personal faves though less highly regarded records, Nowhere To Here. 1997’s Tremolo seemed to be completely overlooked, though, which is a shame since it’s the last of their albums I spent any real time with and I’ve always been fond of it.
I don’t know how far they delve into their back catalog when playing regular shows, but from the reaction of the crowd to some of the older material I’d guess it’s not nearly as deeply as they did on Monday. In fact, it seemed the band – which had a couple of relatively new members in steel guitarist Bob Egan (ex-Wilco) and keyboardist Bob Packwood and when the band agreed to play “Rebel” from Outskirts – a request that came with a $1000 donation to the local food bank to which all proceeds on the night, over $10,000 total, were going – it was fun to watch original members Jim Cuddy, Greg Keelor and Bazil Donovan show the new guys the chord changes. Special guests were also on hand for the occasion. Dallas and Travis Good from The Sadies – without their suits, no less – and local singer-songwriters Luke Doucet and Justin Rutledge all sat in for a few numbers, playing both their own songs and Blue Rodeo’s all coming onstage at the finale for “Lost Together”.
You’d expect a band that’s been at it as long as they have to have their act together and Blue Rodeo delivered the goods with gusto and polish. Cuddy and Keelor’s voices sound as smooth and gravelly, respectively, as they did over 20 years ago – maybe moreso – and still go together in perfect harmony. Similarly, the songwriting recipe of weepers from Cuddy, rockers from Keelor and country-pop gems from both is as effective as ever. If there was a complaint, it’s that the band was too polished. On more than a few instances, songs were dragged into jam band territory with solos that were unnecessary at best, unpleasant at worst. Keyboardist Bob Packwood was the worst offender with his excess of notes and keyboard face (like guitar face but worse) but even bassist Bazil Donovan, who used to be the very epitome of the solid, non-flashy player, took a few solos that only served to remind why there is never a need for a bass solo. The band, whomever has been in it, has never had a shortage of musical prowess on tap but it’s always been about the songs. Maybe when you’ve been playing the same songs for so many years, this is how you keep things interesting but I for one found it unnecessary.
But that’s one negative against an evening full of positives. It was great to get to see my one-time musical heroes live for the first time in thirteen years and still be as swept up in the music as I was way back when. All told – three sets (with predetermined setlists which were pretty much ignored wholesale) and an encore – the band played for over three hours and there’s something to be said for staggering out into the cold December night all sweaty-like and warm with nostalgia.
Photos: Blue Rodeo @ The Horseshoe – December 17, 2007
Video: Blue Rodeo – “Five Days In May”
Video: Blue Rodeo – “Lost Together”
Video: Blue Rodeo – “Til I Am Myself Again”
Video: Blue Rodeo – “Diamond Mine”
Video: Blue Rodeo – “Trust Yourself”
MySpace: Blue Rodeo
Of course, if this year had really been about me reliving my high school days, I’d have found the opportunity to see R.E.M.… though I don’t feel especially bad that I didn’t. Hmm. Spinner reports that Stipey announced their new album as coming out on April 1. Yeah. It’s a Tuesday. Could be legit.
Wireless Bollinger talks to Juanita Stein of Howling Bells. She also gives Gridskipper a list of a half-dozen things she hates about Sydney, Australia. It’s okay, she’s from there. She’s allowed to complain.