bob egan

REVIEW: Blue Rodeo – 1000 Arms (2016)

BLUE RODEO – 1000 Arms (2016 Warner)

It’s hard keeping up with Blue Rodeo! They’re always working, either as a band or on their own projects. They’ve released new albums consistently without gaps. That’s 15 studio albums (one of them a double) spanning 30 years. Countless amazing songs…but mathematically their growth have kept me from growing with their new music as much as the old. There are only so many hours in a day, and days in a week, and it’s hard to imagine the day that 1000 Arms will surpass Five Days in July for number of spins.  It’s inevitable that when listening to newer Blue Rodeo music, it doesn’t feel as close to you as the early stuff.

Blue Rodeo maintain their knack for incredible songs and playing on 1000 Arms.  Greg Keelor conjures up the same old, not-quite-broken spirits as before.  “Nothing I ever do is good for you, will I ever realize?  You’re never satisfied.”  Biting lyrics, chiming mandolin and perfect Cuddy/Keelor harmonies combine to make the opener “Hard to Remember” a future classic.  Jim Cuddy takes the wheel next on an upbeat number called “I Can’t Hide My Feelings Anymore”.  When has Jim ever hid his feelings?  Not the point — another great tune.

The disc is loaded with great tunes.  “Jimmy Fall Down” (vocals: Keelor) maintains the bright, upbeat direction.  Things don’t slow down until track 4, “Long Hard Life”.  It’s quieter but no less enjoyable.  It’s only a temporary reprieve, as “Rabbit’s Foot” brings a classic guitar vibe.  The title track is old style Cuddy storytelling.  Greg’s penchant for slow and dramatic music is carried on by “Dust to Gold”.  There is even sly humour on “Superstar”, something you don’t always get with a Blue Rodeo album.  “Start a business, organics door to door, ’cause nobody buys records here anymore.”

We could go on and continue to describe this batch of new tunes, but rest assured there are no duds.  (Do stay tuned for a heavy exotic turn on closing track “The Flame”.)  I hope that, over time, these songs become as much a part of me as the old tunes.  There’s little difference in terms of quality, and the musicianship is always tops.  Colin Cripps would be responsible for many of the tasteful guitar solos, but 1000 Arms is the last Blue Rodeo album to feature mandolin player (and Kitchener, Ontario resident) Bob Egan.  (That’s why he’s front and center of the band photo.)  Bob departed after making this one, and he went out in great style.

4/5 stars

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REVIEW: Blue Rodeo – Live at Massey Hall (2015)

Scan_20160426BLUE RODEO – Live at Massey Hall (2015 Warner)

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.

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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.

4/5 stars

 

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REVIEW: Blue Rodeo – Greatest Hits vol. 1 (2001)

Happy Mothers Day to all the moms out there!

BLUE RODEO GREATEST HITS_0001BLUE RODEO – Greatest Hits vol. 1 (2001 Warner)

Blue Rodeo are not a “Greatest Hits” band. Indeed, before this album came out, Jim and Greg routinely used to say, “We’ll only do a greatest hits when we’re finished.” Well, record company pressure must have gotten to them (or they may have just outlasted their own expectations), and they released this typical hits compilation: 12 hits and 2 new songs, just like every other band’s hits compilation.

The problem with Blue Rodeo is that they are so much more than the sum of their hits. Sure, “Rose-Coloured Glasses” (track 2) is a hit single, but what about “Rebel” or “Heart Like Mine”? (This is the album version of “Rose-Coloured Glasses”, not the very rare single remix, only available on 7″ single back in 1986). There’s simply no room on a single disc hits album for the songs that define the Blue Rodeo sound. Blue Rodeo were and still are more about albums, the bigger picture.  Especially in the early days, each album was a different direction from the last.  Each of the first five (and arguably six) first Blue Rodeo studio albums stand as critically important pieces of work.

Having said that, you do get a generous slice of hits here. Fans know these songs already, so I won’t spend too much time talking about them. “Lost Together”, the full length version of “Diamond Mine”, “Bad Timing”, “Try”…these are all songs that saturated the radio in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Peppered along with them are tunes like “Trust Yourself” from Casino, a minor single that some might have forgotten. I was pleased that “Side of the Road” and “Dark Angel” were here, which represent Blue Rodeo’s less commercial side.

For those who love Jim’s ballads, some of his most notable are here.  For those who prefer Blue Rodeo’s radio country-rocking side, there is “Til I Am Myself Again”, “It Could Happen to You” and the classic “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet”.  Greatest Hits vol. 1 is a fair slice of great tunes.  Certainly there are none to skip…just that there are plenty more where these came from.

Missing in action: any songs from The Days In Between, Blue Rodeo’s most recent album at the time. I guess that’s because The Days In Between just was the first underwhelming Blue Rodeo album. The US version of Greatest Hits subbed in Jim’s hit ballad “Bulletproof” from the later Palace Of Gold, instead of “It Could Happen To You” from Tremelo. (Palace Of Gold followed Greatest Hits, but not in the US where this was released afterwards.)

The two new tracks were a revelation. Blue Rodeo had started experimenting with a horn section, and the Greatest Hits tour featured these additional musicians on their back catalogue. The two new songs also feature the horns and strings.  This led into their next album, the aforementioned Palace of Gold, which utilized these instruments throughout.  A re-recording of “After The Rain” benefits greatly from their soulful sounds (not to mention extended solos and jamming). The Bee Gees cover “To Love Somebody” (lead vocal by Greg) has ended up being one of the best covers Blue Rodeo has done to date, live or otherwise. The new sound with horns would be fully realized on Palace Of Gold, but fear not if you don’t like this sound: they soon reverted to the classic configuration of the band.

My best advice is, if you want to really check out some Blue Rodeo, pick up those early albums one by one when you find them cheap (it’s not hard to do). If “Try” is your favourite song, pick up Outskirts, and then explore the rest of the gems on that classic record. Likewise if “Lost Together” is the only song you know, pick up that album and be surprised by the deep album cuts that you would have missed otherwise. And most of all, see the band live.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Blue Rodeo – Palace of Gold (17 track Rounder version)

BLUE RODEO – Palace of Gold (2002 Rounder version with 3 bonus tracks)

After the disappointing (to me) The Days In Between, Blue Rodeo did the long-awaited Greatest Hits dealio.  Then they did something unexpected, and added horns to the mix on a couple new tracks. That carried over to the Greatest Hits tour, where they added that same horn section to old classics like “Diamond Mine”. I remember the trumpet player executed a killer solo during that song when I saw them live in Stratford Ontario.  They do an annual winter show there, in the round, at the Festival.

Palace of Gold is the album that followed this experimentation.  Horns and strings are added to a good number of songs. The end result was a rejuvenated Blue Rodeo, more happy-go-lucky in general this time out, sounding excited to be playing again.

The opening track “Palace of Gold” is a Greg rocker with some floaty catchy keys from James Gray. Glenn Milchem’s drums propel the song forward excitedly. This is followed by a cool mid-tempo song called “Holding On” that reminds me of the flavour Jim’s first solo album. “Holding On” is not only catchy, traditional Blue Rodeo, but also contains some of Jim’s trademark heartfelt lyrics.

Some tasty mandolin work introduces Greg’s “Homeward Bound Angel”, another uptempo track. Horns are introduced here for the first time on Palace of Gold.  By my reckoning, this is now three oustanding songs in a row.  This is just a preface to “Bulletproof”, aka “the album’s big hit”.  It’s a torchy ballad as Jim is loved for. It’s not as immediate as  previous ballads like “Try” or “After the Rain”, but after a few listens, it’s sunk in.  The arrangement is backed by lush strings.

A taste of reverb intruduces “Comet”, the first song that I find below the high standard already set. It is a trippy psychedelic Greg tune, with what sounds like therimin and strings. I’m just not keen on this one.  I find it less exciting than other similar concepts from Greg, such as “Girl In Green”.

Swift punky chords are soon followed by deep fat horns.  This is Jim’s “Walk Like You Don’t Mind”, another highlight, only bettered by Bazil Donovan’s bouncy basslines.  It’s a Blue Rodeo rave-up.  This is the kind of sound I love from them, especially live.

“Love Never Lies” is highlighted more strings, but this Jim ballad sounds melodically similar to the previous”New Year’s Day” from his solo album. One of my favourite songs is track 8, “Stage Door”. Greg’s lyric always inspires hoots and hollars from the crowd:

Ain’t no mystery, what I need,
is understanding and your sweet sympathy,
A steel string guitar and a little weed,
N’ someone to keep me company.

The arrangement contains both strings and horns, and of all the songs on this album, “Stage Door” amalgamates these instruments most successfully.  (Live, I’ve heard Bazil Donovan take the lead vocal on this song — he was once arrested for possession.  The charges were dropped.)

PALACE OF GOLD_0002It’s hard to follow a song like that. I’m not in love with the next song, Jim’s “Cause for Sympathy”. The verses are dull to me, although it does boast a very nice chorus where both Jim and Greg sing together. Likewise, I usually snooze through the following track, the 60’s-sounding “What A Surprise”, sung by Greg.

“Clearer View”, a Jim Cuddy contribution, returns the album to high standards of outstanding songcraft.  It’s a much needed shot in the arm, a driving song with the perfect horn section. Glenn Milchem’s drumming is rock solid but also propels the song forward like rocket fuel, especially during the chorus

The album slides back again into sleepy-land on Greg’s “Glad to be Alive”. This dreamy song ise a slide guitar-laden lullaby. Jim’s “Find a Way to Say Goodbye” is a ballad but has some punchy horns during the chorus, that are quite tasty. The final song is yet another snoozer from Greg Keelor called “Tell Me Baby”. I think unfortunately that Palace of Gold slides a bit at the end, and contains so many slow songs right at the finish line.

Fortunately there is a US edition of this album on Rounder Records that contains an additional three songs. These kick the album back up a notch at the end. They are are live tunes, and only one is a ballad! “The Railroad”, a Lee Hazelwood cover, is a blast. “Bad Timing” is of course one of Jim’s most classic ballads of all time, so we’ll let that one slide. The final track is another rock n’ roller, “You’re Everywhere” (from the Casino album).  They close the album in style.

If you can get the 17 track version as opposed to the 14 track, I think you are in for a much better listening experience.

4/5 stars

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Part 118: Famous Persons

RECORD STORE TALES PART 118:  Famous Persons

People sometimes ask me, “LeBrain, did you ever meet anybody famous through your store?”  I wish that happened more often.  As it stands my list is pretty meager.  I met Dave McDonald, the local weather man.  He wanted in the store early one day.

My meager list:

1. London, Ontario’s “Snake the Tattoo Man”, whose biggest claim to fame was appearing on Phil Donahue, and in a Helix video (“Running Wild in the 21st Century”).  He thought he deserved a discount on CD’s because, as per his words:  “I’m the Tattoo Man”.

2. Country singer Beverley Mahood, a little bit after the initial fame.  She’d worked with David Foster in the past.  She was a regular.  One time she came in and held up her CD.  “That’s me!” she said.  I felt like saying, “Yup…and that’s you in the bargain bin at $4.99, too!”

3. Grammy Award winning Polka King Walter Ostenek, who I’m told is a bit of a pompous ass.  I talked about him in a previous installment.

4. Former Helix and Saga drummer Brian Doerner, who was a super nice guy that didn’t buy anything on that visit.  However I got some drum sticks and autographs out of him later on!

5. The dad of ex-Helix and Brighton Rock guitarist Greg “Shredder” Fraser.  Nice, chatty guy.  Very proud of his son.

6. Blue Rodeo slide guitarist Bob Egan, who never said much of anything.  Just looked around.  I wasn’t sure it was him until I heard that he lived in town, and sure enough, it was Bob Egan.  I believe today he occassionally collaborates with one of our store managers.

That’s about it.  This isn’t exactly a booming metropolis, and we attracted the bare minimum of people with any sort of fame.  During my 20’s, I used to fantasize that singer songwriter Dayna Manning who lived in Stratford would pop in, and we’d meet.  That never happened.

Instead, I had Snake the Tattoo Man coming in.  Good ol’ T-Rev ran into him first.  He said to Snake, “If you wanna talk to a huge Helix fan, talk to Mike.”  So he made a trip specifically to talk to me.  What Trevor failed to get through Snake’s head is that I was a huge Helix fan, not a huge Snake the Tattoo Man fan.  So Snake walked in trying to sell me Snake merch!  I disappointed him by not buying one of his autographed glossy photos.

“Do you want to buy a picture of me with Phil Donahue?  I signed it for you.  $10.  Me and Donahue.  I also have me and Helix.  I’ll give you a deal if you buy five.”

Thanks Trev.  That was such a wonderful experience!