The RCMP. Bombardier. Senate scandals. Blue Rodeo. These things are Canadian institutions. And while some end up in the headlines for groping a colleague, draining your pocketbook, or unsober second don’t-get-caughts, Blue Rodeo remains a class act, solid to their core.
Songs like Til I am Myself Again, Try, and Lost Together have graced so many backyard barbecues, moonlit skinny dips at the lake, campfire cocktails, first dates, weddings and memorials that their music is woven into the fabric of the Canadian psyche like metallic bits are woven into our $100 bill. Hell, it should be Blue Rodeo, not Sir Robert Borden, who graces that bill. They’ve done more for the collective Canadian conscious than any prime minister ever could.
Fittingly, it’s Canada Day long weekend when bassist Bazil Donovan calls from his cottage on a lake a couple of hours east of Toronto, where he’s enjoying spending time with his wife and his daughter, Dahlia. It seems natural that a chat with Donovan, who along with Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor, has been with the band since their Toronto start in 1984, touches on some of the Blue Rodeo’s long, lovely, and sometimes laboured journey through decades and kilometres.
It’s an easy conversation that could have been between any two people who love talking about music. Donovan is down to earth, just like his band. Not one whiff of rock star here. “Well, I have a three-year-old running around and a wife that keeps me doing the chores, (so) the rock star thing doesn’t come into my life at all really. I don’t live much of a rock-star life; I’m pretty much a family guy. If I ever get too full blown there are people around to let me know,” Donovan says.
In fact, far from strutting it, Donovan is humble about playing with a band that has sold nearly 5 million albums, earned 15 Juno Awards, and was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2012. “I’ve always looked at it for what it is: I am a musician who is fortunate. I know so many great musicians who aren’t as fortunate as I am. I’ve been playing with Blue Rodeo for 34 years now. It’s been a great ride. I’ve got a life that allows me to just play music for a living. I’ve got a house in the city and this cottage on the lake here. I get to do the things I want to do. I consider myself extremely fortunate.
“I know so many people, great musicians who are struggling; they’re worried about getting their next gig, some of them are working day jobs to make ends meet. Things could be different. I’d still be playing music, but I remember when I was playing in country bars when I was a young guy, I didn’t care whether we made it or not, I just wanted to keep playing music.”
Not that Blue Rodeo was ever a candidate for a Town and Country cover story. “It’s a pretty blue-collar type success: we work; we make a living. I can still go out and wherever I am I can walk around and nobody knows who I am or cares who I am — they just treat me like another person.
“Then, when I’m with Blue Rodeo, there’s a bit of special treatment because it’s like, ‘Oh, we love your music!’ But it’s not in excess like it takes over your life. When I’m working it takes over my life, but when I’m not working it’s very easy to put it to bed. It’s not like I go into a restaurant and get my table any quicker than anyone else.”
It was May, 1989, when this writer saw Blue Rodeo at the Palliser Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom with the late James Muretich, who passionately covered music for both Calgary dailies over the years. Muretich raved that he didn’t understand why Blue Rodeo wasn’t huge everywhere in the world, especially in the United States. Donovan has given the same idea some thought.
“I’ve analyzed it many times over the years as to why we didn’t catch on down south. So much of it is timing. I remember knowing it wasn’t going to happen down there when grunge broke, and that was 1990-’91. We had been plugged, touring like crazy trying to make in-roads, and we thought, ‘Maybe it’s going to happen.’ We’d get on a tour that looked pretty good.
“We were caught in that period where Jim had just had children, and we toured a lot, but we weren’t willing to go that extra mile. The record company was saying, ‘If you’re willing to put three years in we can make this happen.’ But that’s like three years of your whole life!” Donovan continues.
“When I say your whole life, I remember talking to people who have done that. For example, Kevin Hearn from the Barenaked Ladies lives around the corner from me, and one day I bumped into him. It was just before Christmas, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m flying tomorrow to Florida, because the Barenaked Ladies have to play this Christmas BBQ for this radio station because if not, they’re threatening to pull our record.’ Stuff like that. So when you commit to it, you will do whatever it takes. So you spend Christmas Day flying home because a radio station wanted you to play their Christmas Eve BBQ in the sun in Florida. We worked hard, but there were things we wouldn’t do. And some of them were like that.”
That healthy sense of priorities and boundaries cost the band some could-have-been memorable moments, like when they were offered the opening slot for Wilco’s American tour but turned it down because Cuddy honoured a long-standing commitment to take his family to Italy during the same dates. “When we turned it down, I could sense the record company people were pretty upset with us. We weren’t willing to sacrifice our whole life to make it in the States.”
Donovan also points to being booked on the wrong tours, like when the band was opening for Edie Brickell and her audience just didn’t get Blue Rodeo — although she and her band loved them — as barriers to that larger success.
And again, Donovan came back to the timing factor. Two years ago, The Strumbellas were opening for Blue Rodeo when they “caught fire” and had to leave for a few days and fly out to play the Jimmy Kimmel Show. “And then we were on tour in Ireland, and I remember hearing their song on the radio and I thought, ‘Oh God, they’re gonna happen. It’s gonna happen worldwide for them.’ And it has, now — whatever it is, that tipping point that makes it go bang everywhere.”
Then there’s the stigma for Canadian bands playing the States (“Oh, they’re big in Canada, but nobody knows them down here”). To overcome that, Donovan says bands might have to tour for nine months, then go back and play the same cities to move into bigger venues. “It’s tiring. I’ve seen it kill so many bands at the end of it, people are quitting, people are leaving.”
Of course, there’s that good old, uninflated Canadian ego that can go with the flow, maybe out of necessity of being a mouse in bed with an elephant. “Canada is a different story. Canadian tastes — we’re open to more. One of the greatest speeches at the Juno Awards was k.d. lang when she was at her Hall of Fame induction. She said (Donovan’s paraphrase), ‘I embrace a country that accepts somebody like me, and celebrates somebody like me, because let’s face it, I’m an oddball was what she was trying to say.’
“But in this country, it’s OK if you’re an oddball, it’s OK if you’re Leonard Cohen or k.d. lang. In America, you have to be a little more mainstream and cater to the mainstream. In Canada were willing to go ‘Yeah, they’re quirky, but we love them and we’ll support them.’ It’s OK to be quirky. We don’t toss them away like in America — they toss them away.”
Donovan cites Hootie and the Blowfish as “a perfect example.”
“We were playing in Connecticut somewhere and they were starting to draw bigger. By that summer they were doing like Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto and they were on the radio everywhere. Two years later, they were back to doing the Warehouse in TO and people had almost forgotten about them.
“In Canada, people are going to stay with you. They don’t just forget about you. And that’s a beautiful thing.”
While it might have been nice for the band to make it huge in the States and elsewhere, in a not-very-Canadian selfish way, fans could be grateful they didn’t. After all, if that had happened, perhaps the band would have imploded and we would not be enjoying them today nor listening to their 15th studio album, 1000 Arms, which offers up the familiar mix of sweet and rough, ballads and rockers, that characterize the band’s career. The only difference with these songs is they aren’t old enough to have embedded themselves into a million Canadian moments and memories. Yet.
Donovan points out that although the band has had lineup changes (drummer Glenn Milchem has the next longest tenure, being with the band 26 years), the feel and intent of Blue Rodeo has remained. “Our core talent — between me, Jim and Greg — if you’re not losing the writers and you’re not losing the singers, then you’ve got the majority of the sound there.”
The bassist also acknowledges that new players “can bring an injection of new energy, which can be very helpful.” He talks about Milchem coming in and working up the songs that would become Five Days in July on tour in Australia. “Nobody knew who we were so we didn’t have any pressure. We didn’t have to play Try. We didn’t have to play any of the big songs. We could do whatever we wanted to (because) these people didn’t know one song from the next.” They recorded the songs at Keelor’s farm, enjoying the barbecue and swimming pool and having a bit of a working vacation.
“We had about 40 new songs, and that was the start of that band, really, that band would go on for quite a while after that. We really started to make our mark. It was a big seller; it sold half a million copies out of the box, and people thought these guys aren’t over yet. It was our fifth album and it was our biggest seller.”
With a back catalogue that stretches another 10 albums and 25 years past that, it could be a bit tricky to manage playing the old tracks for the seven-thousandth time.
“Manage — that’s exactly what we do, is we do a combination of both (old and new.) We have to stick in some new stuff because we just have to. You’ve got to keep moving forward, but we also know people are coming out to hear those songs. Fortunately we have enough songs that we can change them up.
“You go through the list and you think let’s throw this one in and change it up a bit. Yet there’s certain ones you have to keep. We have to do Try, so we save that for the encores. It Hasn’t Hit Me Yet is in there in every night because people constantly come up to us and say, ‘You know, I lost somebody in my life and that song meant so much to me at the time.’ So you gotta play it. There’s no way of getting around it. People would be highly disappointed if we didn’t.
“We do what we can. We try to look at the list and say there’s enough for everybody. There’s enough for the audience who’s coming and expecting to hear this song and there’s enough for us so we don’t feel were on automatic pilot.”
Donovan talks about advice he got from an uncle who also played music: play any kind of music you can. The advice steered the bassist through country, progressive rock, funk, Brazilian salsa and punk. “I remember my one uncle looked at me and said, ‘You know, you’re going to wear a lot of hats in this business, you’re going to have a lot of hairstyles. But, the important part is you’re playing tunes. Just get out there and do it.’ ”
He says his background in country and other styles kept him musically rooted when he fell in love with punk in his mid-20s and began playing with The Sharks, first meeting Keelor and Cuddy, who were playing with their band The High-Fives, on a shared bill.
“When I met Greg he was really getting into country and I already had a background in that, but he was also into Elvis Costello, (The) Clash, Talking Heads, all of that kind of stuff. The one thing we didn’t want: we didn’t want synthesizers in it. To this day you will not hear a synthesizer on a Blue Rodeo track.”
All those years, all those tours, all those sessions mean that of course, no matter how great the harmonies, things are not always harmonious. Donovan once mentioned that the band has had its squabbles and argue about the things “that all bands argue about.” So, what?
“There’s times we have disagreements like that about a song going on a record. I’d think it should, and Jim thinks it shouldn’t. We’d argue it out. Or should we do this gig or should we do that gig. Or there’s a million things when you’re recording. People get so under the magnifying glass in a recording situation. It could be talking about a guitar part. ‘I hate the guitar sound in the song!’’ What do you mean? I love it!’ ‘It’s my guitar sound so shut up!’
“And then there’s personality things as well, where maybe you said in an interview something about someone else and they didn’t like it and they’re holding a grudge.
“There’s all those kinds of things because when you spend 24/7, when you’re on a bus, traveling, I always said we knew each other better than our own families knew us. Because we’d leave home January 3 sometimes to go on tour, and when we’d come back, it would be fall.”
(Photos courtesy Dustin Rabin.)
Blue Rodeo play July 6 at The Banff Centre, and July 8 at The Big Four Roadhouse at the Calgary Stampede. For ticket information, go to https://www.banffcentre.ca/events/blue-rodeo-2 or https://www.calgarystampede.com/stampede/music/blue-rodeo.
Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who has written about music, horses, books and life for over 25 years in publications such as FFWD Weekly, The Calgary Herald, Swerve, Western Horseman, Western Horse Review and others. Don’t follow her on Facebook. In fact, don’t follow her. It creeps her out.