Blue Rodeo exemplifies the old ironic adage about Canadian bands doing Americana better than Americans: the Toronto group ably shouldered that mantle from predecessors like the Band and Neil Young. Unlike those artists, however, Blue Rodeo has had only limited US success. Crossing the border is like entering a new dimension — while the group has slogged around the US in critically respected small club purgatory since the ’80s, Canadians routinely pack sizable arenas for the group’s pop-inflected roots rock.
Blue Rodeo is the love child of two singer-songwriters, the lean, handsome, sunny-toned Jim Cuddy and the gravel-voiced Greg Keelor. The high school friends originally tried their luck with Fly to France, an unsuccessful punk/new wave band in New York City. Returning home in the mid-’80s, they tapped into a lonesome highway thing that was happening in the Toronto clubs. The quintet (bassist Bazil Donovan, drummer Cleave Anderson and the estimable Bob Wiseman on keyboards and accordion) introduced itself on Outskirts, a mix of pop, rock, folk and country that would vary little and serve them well throughout the following decades. The album also set the group’s vocal template, with Keelor’s Elvis Costello-like growl paving the earthy road beneath Cuddy’s high dramatic sunshine.
Diamond Mine offers a more brooding side, the ominously crashing, psychedelic-tinged title track sending a clear message of muscle behind the group’s more polished, adult-contemporary gestures. Casino is more pop-inflected, though certainly in the same ballpark as its predecessors.
The next three albums, the best in the group’s growing canon, pushed Blue Rodeo artistic strides ahead. Lost Together has a bunch of striking moments to recommend it: a torchy trio of blue-eyed pop-country soul numbers from Cuddy (“Rain Down on Me,” “Already Gone” and “Last to Know”) and some anthemic and defiant roots-rock from Keelor (the title track and “Fools Like You”).
With Wiseman off to his solo career (replaced by James Gray), Five Days in July — recorded in Keelor’s airy farmhouse north of Toronto — was originally intended as a demo, but the group realized they had struck gold with the limber, folksy feel of the tracks, and turned the sessions into one of their most popular albums. Many of Blue Rodeo’s essential concert tunes come from this album, including the acoustic gems “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet” and “Cynthia,” both of which perfectly blend Keelor and Cuddy in harmony. The band’s hooky melodicism reached a peak on this album, which also began to move into more moody spaces with “Know Where You Go” / “Tell Me Your Dream” (featuring Sarah McLachlan on harmony vocals).
Moody atmosphere figures prominently on the group’s finest album, the turbulently rocking Nowhere to Here. This is Blue Rodeo’s White Album, a thorny, varied triumph in which the weight of winter and solitary reflection is palpable. The pensive collection is all timberline, sleet, flat expanse, northern lights and heart-muscle. Keelor’s “Side of the Road” is a gorgeously wistful surrender to rock balladry, while the simple country plunk of “Blew It Again” allows Cuddy’s pipes space enough to truly soar in his finest, most heart-crushing six minutes. Blue Rodeo’s best tunes evoke stunned wonderment and stoke poetic fire against literal and figurative coldness; Nowhere to Here is its finest example — and proves the band worth its weight in comparisons to the Band and Neil Young.
Following unremarkable (if somewhat experimental) solo albums from Keelor and Cuddy, Blue Rodeo took a less hunkered-down, more spontaneous approach to 1997’s Tremolo, going into the sessions without much material and allowing for a bunch of studio-sweetening (backward guitar, Pet Sounds-y layers, etc.) to cap things off. There’s some levity here that is in stark contrast to the previous album’s heavy testament. But there’s still plenty of heart-rending sentiment, particularly in the (borderline saccharine) piano pop of “Falling Down Blue,” the undeniably beautiful “Moon & Tree” and the bright country strains of “Fallen From Grace.”
The Canadian-only live release Just Like a Vacation is a nice document of the group’s concert presence, which thrives on dynamic instrumental interplay and lots of vocal participation from the audience.
Ironically, Blue Rodeo’s one weakness is unshakably polished consistency, and the moody, noirish Days in Between, recorded in New Orleans, doesn’t generate the excitement of the group’s mid-’90s work. As usual, though, the ’60s-pop-weaned Keelor and Cuddy are able to summon up uncannily melodic moments — in this case Cuddy’s bouncy “Somebody Waits” and the Dylanesque country-rock of Keelor’s “The Seeker.”
The group’s 2001 greatest hits seems to follow the dictates of Canadian success, and the 13 tracks (along with a new cover of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody) are a thin representation of the group. Palace of Gold was recorded in the band’s studio/clubhouse in Toronto, and unveils a major Stax vibe (complete with horns). The ample studio time produced another solid, unremarkable release — lacking the fire of Nowhere to Here — but with plenty of nods to the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. “Love Never Lies” is clear evidence that Cuddy’s frequent returns to swooping blue-eyed soul are becoming routine and formulaic. While The Days in Between was distributed Stateside solely through the band’s website, Rounder released Palace of Gold (adding three freshly recorded live tracks) in 2003.