Blue Rodeo gets grungier and more country on new disc Lost Together

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 23, 1992

By Steve Newton

HEDLEY, B.C.—Backstage at the Hedley Blast, Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor slumps in his chair and casually scribbles out a song list, pausing now and again to ask roaming band-mates which tunes they want added or dropped from their upcoming set. New drummer Glenn Milchem makes a suggestion and Keelor’s black felt-tip pen hits paper, but this writer can’t determine whether the newcomer’s advice has been taken to heart or not. Keelor’s band-mates will find out when they get on stage.

Thirty yards in front of us, Kris Kristofferson has joined the Pirates of the Mississippi for a rousing version of “Me and Bobby McGee”, but Keelor doesn’t seem the least bit worried about following the American singer/actor and winning over the country-and-western fans who have converged on this scenic Okanagan locale. Maybe the fact that the band recently recruited a full-time pedal-steel guitarist has something to do with it. Could that addition have brought out the country side of the band?

“Well, that’s funny,” says Keelor. “On this record, as far as the country stuff goes, something like ‘Western Skies’ is probably the most country thing we’ve ever done. But then something like ‘Where Are You Now’ or ‘Angels’ is probably the grungiest stuff we’ve ever done. Getting Glenn on drums allowed us to play the country stuff straight and not be worried about sounding too country. And then when we do the heavier stuff, he’s fantastic. He gave us the confidence to play that stuff.”

That newfound confidence is displayed just minutes later as the country and rock elements of Blue Rodeo collide on stage. Even the noisy cover band at the other end of the festival site can’t undermine the glorious sound rolling off the main stage.

“We’ve got Lynyrd Skynyrd over in the beer garden,” quips Keelor’s fellow singer/songwriter/guitarist Jim Cuddy before leading the band into a choice selection from its new album, Lost Together. Recently acquired pedal-steel player Kim Deschamps sounds right at home, and even though now-departed keyboard ace Bobby Wiseman provided an integral part of the Blue Rodeo sound, his absence has not hindered the group’s effectiveness one bit.

“Bobby’s had his own solo career going for a couple of years now,” explains Keelor, “and I think that once you start singin’ your own songs and you’re a songwriter, that’s the thing you really want to do. But when someone leaves, it sort of reinvents the band, and that stuff is all good, you know—it’s good to get all messed up.”

Keelor does expect the band to have acquired a new keyboardist by the time it plays the EarthVoice Festival (formerly known as the Stein Valley Festival) on Sunday (July 26) at Seabird Island. And while Blue Rodeo has performed at the environmentally oriented festival several times before, the band feels that it is just beginning to learn about Native rights and environmental issues.

“Life is a continuing education,” says Keelor, “and we’ve learned a lot in the last few years. Certainly [Stein Valley Festival co-founder] Ruby Dunstan opened up our eyes a ton. There’s people who are committed to change, and they’re out there on the front lines. I’m in a rock band, but if I can help in any way, I’m more than happy to.”

Blue Rodeo’s stand on Native rights comes through loud and clear on Lost Together’s opening track, “Fools Like You”, with its chorus of “stop stealing the Indian land.” The tune shows how well Keelor and Cuddy can mesh vocally—which isn’t too surprising, since they’ve known each other since high school. And Keelor says that since Blue Rodeo produced Lost Together by itself, the two singer/songwriters have become even closer.

“A producer is often like a buffer between us,” he says. “It’s sort of like having an arbitrator—a very expensive arbitrator—so we end up with a lot of compromises. But this time, we had to work it out ourselves. And the nice thing about it is that when things are going well, you don’t have to talk about it too much. We found that the less we talked, the more we just went out and played, and the better it was.”

Looking back over Blue Rodeo’s recording career, Keelor points to the time spent with producers Malcolm Burn (Diamond Mine) and Pete Anderson (Casino) as being most helpful in getting the band to the point where it could make its own record. But he claims that he never liked the sound that producer Terry Brown put on the band’s debut, Outskirts, even though it’s Blue Rodeo’s most popular disc to date. As well as winning Juno and Casby awards, that record had Rolling Stone magazine claiming: “The best American band is from Canada.”

“That makes your head swell a bit,” says Keelor. “You know what it’s like when you haven’t smoked a cigarette in a couple of years and you have a puff? You get giddy and light-headed, and then it leaves, and then you’ve sorta got a headache. It’s kind of the same thing.”

One could interpret the Rolling Stone quote as meaning that Canadian bands are only good when they start sounding like American bands. Keelor puts that down to typical Yankee boasting, but does believe there’s a difference between a lot of Canadian and American bands.

“When you think of bands like Sarah McLachlan or the Skydiggers or 54-40 or the Tragically Hip, they make music that’s really important to them. It’s like their own personal religions, but at the same time, people really like it, and that’s really cool.

“We’ve got our fair share of corporate jerk-off rock bands, too, but it just seems that in America—because it is such a huge industry down there—that there’s a lot more concern and attention [given] to that corporate aspect.”

And just how does Blue Rodeo fit into that corporate aspect? Well, with U.S. distribution being handled by Warners subsidiary Atlantic, things are looking rather prosperous for Canada’s best American band.

“The last record did pretty good down there,” admits Keelor. “We had the two TV things, you know, Letterman and Carson, and the movie [Blue Rodeo performed in Postcards from the Edge]. And we got a fair amount of radio play, so we can fill clubs all over the place. We were down chatting with our record company last week, and they seem to really like this record, so we’ll see what happens. It’s always a throw of the dice.”

 

To hear the audio of my 1992 interview with Greg Keelor subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 300 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

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