Things have changed a lot since the last time I saw Blue Rodeo in the mid-2000’s. They have added a few more albums to the oeuvre, and a few more members to the band. The expansion of Blue Rodeo to a seven-piece band has made their live sound smoother, the rough edges sanded off. Due to Greg Keelor’s hearing loss, the singer and author of some of the most gonzo country-rock guitar solos north of the 47th was forced to unplug, and focus on the acoustic guitar instead. Colin Cripps (Crash Vegas), who had filled in before, was drafted full time to fill the guitar sound. With Kitchener resident Bob Egan on slide and various other stringed instruments, there are now four guitar players in Blue Rodeo. The newest member is Michael Boguski on various keyed instruments.
According to the band, one of the solutions to Greg’s hearing issues was changing over to in-ear monitors. There was a rough shake down period to get used to this setup, timid performances during which the band says they failed to take chances live. For Blue Rodeo to issue a new live album, one must assume these issues have been ironed out. Live at Massey Hall is the band’s first live album since 2008’s Blue Road. It is also their shortest live album with only one disc inside (Blue Road was more of a video album, with unique CD and DVD content).
Supporting the studio album In Our Nature, the Massey Hall album has a little bit of newer material, but is dominated by past hits. Most of the new songs are clumped together in the middle of the CD: “New Morning Sun”, “Tara’s Blues”, “Tell Me Again” and “When the Truth Comes Out”. There is no drop of quality during this four-song clump, in fact “New Morning Sun” almost sounds as if lifted from Blue Rodeo’s late-80’s heyday. The last of the new songs, “Paradise”, is left closer to the end, before the rousing finale of “5 Days in May” and “Lost Together”.
Plenty of hits abound, with only “Try” obviously absent. There are also a couple of surprise tracks: the rarely played “Girl of Mine” from Diamond Mine, and “Disappear” from Tremolo. The 8:04 “Disappear” is the album highlight, recalling the mighty feats of Blue Rodeo onstage in the 1990’s. It rivals “Diamond Mine” for drama and instrumental gold, but has a beautiful melancholy power.
Old man time may have taken his toll on Greg’s hearing. Jim’s voice might be a little lower and huskier than it used to be. This band, surely one of the best live acts Canada has produced, survives on. The studio albums may no longer hit the charts like they used to, but Blue Rodeo have always seemed truly at home on the stage. With the addition of Cripps (helping out on backing vocals as well as guitar), the band are still able to do the big bold rock songs like “Lost Together” and “Diamond Mine” at full strength.
There was once a time when the music press questioned if Blue Rodeo could remain a vital force without original member Bobby Wiseman on keyboards. That was 1992. Not only have they remained just as challenging as ever, but they have continued to evolve and grow. Now it feels as if things have come full circle, back to that point in the mid-90’s when we realized the sky was the only limit for this band. We look forward to whatever Blue Rodeo produce next.