If you can imagine Paul Westerberg and Rodney Crowell starting a band, something approaching Blue Rodeo is probably what you’d end up with.
Twenty-five years into their career, Toronto’s Blue Rodeo has every right to make a claim for the title of greatest Canadian act since the Band. Too bad not many people outside of the northern half of the continent are familiar enough with their brand of country-rock to agree. This is the most consistently impressive band you’ve rarely heard.
Boasting two top-flight singer-songwriters in Greg Keelor (the road-battered shambler) and Jim Cuddy (the honey-voiced craftsman) whose styles both compliment and lift each other’s, the Blue Rodeo sound has always fit rather precisely into the alt-country scene, that territory at the intersection of the conservatism of traditional country and the restless abandon of punk. If you can imagine Paul Westerberg and Rodney Crowell starting a band, something approaching Blue Rodeo is probably what you’d end up with.
And now, this Canadian institution -- 12 studio albums, three live records, $4 million-plus in sales -- are enjoying a triumphant cross-country tour to mark a quarter century on the road. On the first night of two sold-out shows at Toronto’s prestigious Massey Hall, the veterans offered up a wide range of material from their catalogue. Leaning heavily on favourites from their best overall record, 1993’s indelible Five Days in July, and peppering the two distinct sets with several songs from a just-completed record slated for release late in 2013, the band moved freely between crowd-pleasing sing-alongs and bursts of rousing showmanship.
Fan favourites like “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet”, “Five Days in May”, “Outskirts”, “Till I Am Myself Again”, and the inevitable “Lost Together” each seemed to bring the mostly 40-something crowd to successive levels of rapture. Perhaps the night’s most memorable moment came when Keelor dedicated their rather glorious 1992 political anthem “Fools Like You” to the Idle No More movement which has awoken Canadian attention to Indigenous rights concerns in recent months. “Stop stealing the Indian land!” he sang out, and the words reverberated around the rafters in this Hall named for a former Governor General of Canada.
Augmenting their core lineup -- Cuddy and Keelor, bassist Bazil Donovan, drummer Glenn Milchem, pedal steel wizard Bob Egan -- with crack players Colin Cripps (lead guitar) and Michael Boguski (keyboards), the band allowed several songs to stretch out, offering up extended instrumental breaks featuring impressive solo work.
Oddly, this turned out to be the only sour note for me. As fabulous as Boguski’s and Cripps’ respective technique may be, there was something unnatural about all of the jamming featuring these hired hands. Blue Rodeo can easily fill out two sets of music with a raft of their tightly-constructed, well-crafted songs, so stretching more than a few to well past the seven-minute mark in order to feature recent additions to the band became somewhat of a distraction for this reviewer. This tendency came to appear perilously close to a crutch, a hand-off of responsibility. The crowd devoured all of this virtuosity, mind you -- it was a love-in at Massey on this night. But one can’t help but wonder if the breathless Blue Rodeo story told in post-show conversation really should have been the “Genetic Method”-esque extended piano solo that Boguski offered up during “Diamond Mine”? Or if it shouldn’t have been instead about the astonishing quality of the song in which that work was featured?