colin cripps

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

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 – Tremolo (1997)

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BLUE RODEO – Tremolo (1997 Warner)

I first saw Blue Rodeo live in July 1991, just after highschool graduation.  Instant fan!  I saw them again in 1996 and 1998, supporting Nowhere To Here and Tremolo, respectively.  Both albums grew on me tremendously after I saw the show.  Before that, I struggled with them a bit, not quite liking them, not quite disliking them, and not wanting to give up on them.  Funny how that goes.  I rate them today in my top 3 Blue Rodeo albums, along with Five Days in July.

Tremolo requires your complete attention, this is not background music, although it will still sound great in the background. This is one of those deeper albums, one that needs multiple listens.  I find it reveals different faces when I listen to it in different settings as well.  The cottage is better than the car, for example.  For me.

Nowhere To Here and Tremelo, albums #6 and #7, both originated at the same time as Five Days.  The recent Blue Rodeo box set, 1984-1993 contains early different versions of “Moon & Tree” and “No Miracle No Dazzle”.  Tremolo is much like a brother record to Nowhere To Here, an acoustic brother record. They both share the same laid back origins, the same jammy style and meandering arrangements. They also share the same lineup which was my favourite: Jim Cuddy, Greg Keelor, Bazil Donovan, Glenn Milchem, keyboardist James Gray and pedal steel player Kim Dechampes.

Most songs are mellow, laid back, spare in arrangement and very acoustic. At times, this is also the most “country” sounding of Blue Rodeo records. Witness Jim’s “Shed My Skin”, which is beautiful. “No Miracle No Dazzle” is an upbeat one from Greg, another awesome tune, while “Falling Down Blue” is for slow dancing.  All of these are loaded with spirit, be it Jim’s melancholy wordplay or Greg’s gleeful guitar playing.  All the players shine on this album, not necessarily as solosists (although that is often the case), but how they all mesh together.  The blend of instruments is flawless.

TREMOLO_0003I still think of albums as having a side one and a side two.  I had to tape Tremolo on a cassette so I could play it in the car back in ’97.  It’s “side two” of Tremolo that I really like.   “It Could Happen To You” was a popular upbeat Jim single that received a lot of airplay. “Dragging On” is an atmospheric Jim tune, with some beautiful watery keyboards backing it, with fantastic lyrics of heartbreak that only Jim can sing.  You left a hole in me, and the rain comes pouring in, sometimes I’m swept away…”

“Brother Andre’s Heart” and “Frogs’ Lullaby” work together as one Greg tune, quite extended and jammy, 12 minutes in total.  After a tune like that, they had to end it with a corker!  It’s the best song on the album as far as I’m concerned, and conspicuous by being so different:  “Graveyard”.

Well I love these nervous breakdowns,
And I love these new skins,
And I love that you were brave enough,
To sleep with all my friends.

Greg was pissed off at someone, lemme tell you, and this sounds like some kind of punk-a-billy song.

This album has 14 songs on it, and I’ve only talked about around half of them.  The rest of them are also great, but different songs will appeal to different people.  I wanted to talk about the ones that get me almost every time.  You might find that you really like a song like “Fallen From Grace” because it reminds you of the early Blue Rodeo country-blues vibe.

If you love Blue Rodeo, I consider this album a must. It’s not an instant pleasure, but it is a very rewarding listen.  It continues to reveal new layers of music and lyrical poetry to me today.  In my humble personal opinion, I don’t think Blue Rodeo ever attained this lofty standards again.

5/5 stars