Experience doesn’t always beget lessons learned.
Sometimes you need a constant reminder and even then it doesn’t necessarily sink in.
Take Blue Rodeo, for instance. The venerable Toronto country rock act are about as experienced as any touring band in this country could ever hope and pray to be.
This past fall they did, after all, just release the 14th traditional studio album in their storied, 30-year career.
Recorded at Rodeo’s own studio The Woodshed with producer Tim Vesely, 1000 Arms is an album that has, quite correctly, been called a return to the early days of the gang of gents — led from its inception by co-frontmen and songwriters Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor — while also infusing a sense of welcome freshness into the proceedings.
And now the group has embarked upon their bajillionth tour across the frozen tundra they call home to support that aforementioned album.
Prepared? Well …
When Cuddy calls for an interview he’s pondering the wonder that is Regina in mid-January.
“Crisp, cold, totally blue sky — amazing,” the artist says of his surroundings.
The previous afternoon, which was spent in Winnipeg, was apparently similar. And although it was a scene and experience that he’s doubtless witnessed more often than most who don’t call ’Toba their home, it was also one that still has the ability to catch even the most seasoned Canuck off guard, including those in his crew and the seven band members, themselves.
“Yesterday, I swear to god,” Cuddy says with a laugh, “Mountain Equipment Co-op sold 19 balaclavas in 10 minutes because everyone that walked out said, ‘Holy crap,’ went right to MEC and bought a balaclava.”
Hopefully he and his mates can put those away when they roll into Chinooky Calgary for a pair of Jubilee Auditorium shows this Saturday and Sunday.
Prior to that, though, a shivering Cuddy spoke with theYYSCENE about the tour, the album and the community that Blue Rodeo have been part of for more than three decades now.
Q: I know it’s in its early stages, but how’s the tour going so far?
A: It’s super early stages, because we’ve just done the one night in Thunder Bay … The first night is always a little scattered. I think that it has this kind of unfinished painting thing to it. It’s like, “Wow, let’s get all of the colours up there and see what happens.” So I think tonight we’ve reconfigured the set a little bit … and I think we’ll be fine. First nights always inspire us to argue a bit, joke a bit, figure out what we’re going to do next until we’re happy.
Q: Congratulations on the new album. I think it has some of the best songs that you guys have written in some time — not to denigrate the other stuff you’ve recorded recently. You just seem to be in a groove with this record.
A: Yeah, I think it’s true. I think we felt that. I think if you’d talk to Greg I think he would say that the record was more difficult to make than I thought. It was pretty apparent from the beginning where we were going with this record. As soon as I heard the songs I thought, “Oh, this is going to be fun … I know what to do with all of these songs.” It’s a couple of things. First of all I think it’s the consolidation of Colin Cripps in the band, Colin playing guitar. When we talked about that maybe we wanted to hearken back to the late ’70s British pub rock, Nick Lowe kind of production, Colin was like, “I know exactly what to do.” … And it’s also the flourishing for many reasons of Michael Boguski, our keyboard player, just feeling like he’s the guy, “This is all yours — do it.” That makes a big difference because it takes a lot of pressure off Greg and myself, and we can strum or play or pick or whatever, add what we want, but we can really concentrate on the songwriting, the singing and singing together. So, I think you’re right, I think we found a good groove and all of the pieces work really easily together.
Q: I know after this many years this may be seen as not a compliment, but it’s meant as one, it sounds as if you guys are comfortable but not too comfortable on this album, which must be a tough line to walk.
A: I think that’s a compliment. I think we’re inspired by the songs and we know when we go too far and don’t sound like ourselves and we have to pull it back but if you pull it back to a certain level you sound fresh. It’s not bad for us to hearken back to some of our earlier sounds, too, because it’s something that you leave without knowing it. I don’t think that Greg and I, until we were told by Tim Vesely, “You guys should sing like you sang on the first couple of records.” And we said, “Well we do.” “Well, no you don’t.” And then we listened back and we thought, “No we don’t,” because we were just two voices then. And we’d gotten into all of this background stuff and we’ve thickened everything up, so it was different.
And when we got back to that, not only was it natural for us so it was easy, but it’s powerful. The human voice is a very odd thing, right, because it’s not necessarily more powerful the more you stack onto it. A single human voice is a very powerful thing and so you have to be careful that you don’t water it down. So it was a good lesson, it was good advice from Tim and I think it added a lot to the record.
Q: Perhaps it’s a stretch, but the sense of community seems to be a common theme throughout the record. I know the title track (based on a podcast Cuddy had heard about a coffeeshop owner in San Francisco who was bi-polar and who relied upon those in her neighbourhood to look after her when she had an episode) has that but there are several others, including Jimmy Fall Down (a Keelor composition about a character who hung around with the two songwriters and their scene before Blue Rodeo formed) and Superstar (a wonderfully cynical Cuddy song about trying to make it big in L.A.) that also seem to address it on some level. Is that something you noticed or even strove for or did it just reveal itself when the album finished?
A: No, I don’t think it appeared when everything was done. And I didn’t think the writing stage was going to be particularly coherent. 1000 Arms obviously comes from a podcast about community, so that was that, but then as we started talking about that title, we’d all been so affected by the things that had happened to people in our larger musical community — John Mann and Gord Downie — that we were, you know, everybody was pretty vulnerable.
And when that was suggested as the title, it was just obvious we should do that. And then you realize that there are a lot of songs, like you say, Jimmy Fall Down, this notion of trying to make it or not making it, the ones that have fallen by the wayside or the silly pursuits that we see when we go to L.A. any time …
We were consciously writing about our own community, but we didn’t anticipate that — well, we knew about John Mann but we didn’t know about Gord — so then those things seem like a peculiar almost cruel twist of fate that those things happen when you’re in the midst of writing this record that seems to be reflective of your own community.
Q: It was amazing to see the community as a whole rally around those two and how tight knit it really was. It must have been a pretty wonderful thing to be a part of and pretty inspiring.
A: I think you’re absolutely right. You know in the music business in Canada, the dickheads really stick out because they’re very infrequent. You think it just doesn’t happen. When bands come along and they’re super arrogant or putting on airs or zipping around in limos and stuff, it just doesn’t happen very much. From the top down, you’ve got pretty level-headed people and, yes, there is this almost unspoken support of each other. You know, musicians can talk a lot of crap. (Laughs) They can sit in their dressing rooms and say everyone sucks, but when it comes right down to it everyone’s very supportive. You don’t hear about bad blood on festivals, you don’t hear people not lending each other instruments or whatever they need. And certainly when there’s tragedies, the outpouring is broad and sincere.
(Note: This interview was edited for space and clarity.)
Blue Rodeo perform Saturday and Sunday night at the Jubilee Auditorium. Click here for details.
Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.ca. He likes beer. Buy him one. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.