James Gray

REVIEW: Greg Keelor – “Pine Ridge” (1996)

GREG KEELOR – “Pine Ridge” (1996, from Pine Ridge: Songs for Leonard Peltier)

Blue Rodeo are taking some heat these days for their stance on indigenous rights.  A small group of fans are abandoning the band for (quote-unquote) “going political”, but politics is nothing new for this Canadian institution.  In 2015, they recorded “Stealin’ All My Dreams” just in time for the 2015 Canadian election.  (The mp3 file had a tag reminding fans to vote!)  It was pretty clear from the song where they stood on the issues.  Further back, in 1996, they participated in Pine Ridge, a benefit CD for Leonard Peltier.  It’s a long story that has resulted in at least three movies, a U2 song, and support from Rage Against the Machine.  Greg Keeler’s contribution to the Pine Ridge CD is one of the strongest songs of his entire career.

The track may be credited solely to Greg Keelor, but if you look at the players, it’s actually Blue Rodeo.  Jim Cuddy, Bazil Donovan, Glenn Milchem, James Gray, Kim Deschamps…the gang’s all there, the classic Five Days in July lineup.  So it’s a Blue Rodeo song in every way but in name.  At 10 minutes in length, it is unprecedented in complexity for this great band.  And they wore their politics directly on their sleeves.

The government man hate the colour of your skin and your dogshined reservation,
No reasons why those two FBI were on Oglala land chasing that red van,
And the FBI admit Leonard Peltier did not commit the killings that have
Kept him 20 years in prison.

The track runs the gamut from quiet, contemplative picking to soulful and dramatic choruses, to a funky mid-section, and a huge ending.  It’s as epic as Blue Rodeo get.  It tugs at the soul, and stimulates the mind.  It’s a protest song in the grandest tradition, right out of 1969.  And nobody can flat-out play like Blue Rodeo.  Pedal steel, dobro, organ…it’s all here.  And it’s massive.

Stay political, Greg.  Regardless of where you fall on the current situation in Canada (it ain’t pretty), we can all agree that the world is richer for all the great protest songs of the past.  Here is another one, now an oldie itself.

5/5 stars

The Pine Ridge CD also features performances by The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy, ex-Blue Rodeo keyboardist Bob Wiseman, Jane Sibbery, Michael Ondaatje, Ashley MacIsaac, Sarah McLachlan, the Skydiggers and many more.  Worth the investment.

 

REVIEW: Blue Rodeo – Just Like a Vacation / “Joker’s Wild” bonus track (1999)

The Best Fucking Collaboration Week Ever, Pt. 2
 Mike and Aaron will be doing simultaneous daily reviews of albums these two intrepid music reporters have sent to each other. Buckle up, buttercups, it’s gonna be a blast!

BLUE RODEO – Just Like a Vacation / “Joker’s Wild” bonus track from Stardust Picnic  (1999 Warner)

I spent a lot of days in the summer of 1999 working in the Record Store in Cambridge. That was T-Rev’s store, normally, but he was out of town. He was Ajax, I think, helping build our next franchise. T-Rev is handy so his role was, in theory, supposed to transition to building new stores full time. That never fully happened, which in a way was a good thing, because they never had a plan for filling T-Rev’s time slot as store manager in Cambridge! In the interim, they sent me there and I was responsible for managing two stores. Not the first time and certainly not the last time.

’99 was a great summer for double live albums. There were two in particular I played daily: Sloan’s 4 Nights at the Palais Royale, and Blue Rodeo’s Just Like a Vacation.  Despite the added stress and mileage on the car, these two double live albums helped ensure that summer was hot and fresh with great music.  Blue Rodeo are one of the greatest live bands I’ve seen and I had long been awaiting a full-on double CD set of the live concert experience.

Just Like a Vacation is the absolutely perfect document of the Blue Rodeo experience circa 1999.  Hard edged and jamming, Blue Rodeo were at this time a mixture of country crooning and long noisy Neil Young jams.  The set is taken from a variety of shows and assembled into a coherent running order.  Perhaps the first track, the upbeat country of “Til I am Myself Again” was recorded in Stratford; Jim warns the crowd they may be snowed in that night, a common threat at the Stratford festival during their annual show there!

The first seven Blue Rodeo albums, from Outskirts (1987) to Tremolo (1997) are all essential listening.  This live set is loaded heavy with some of the best songs from that era, from the tender Jim Cuddy ballads (“Try”, “After the Rain”, “Bad Timing”) to the more epic Greg Keelor blasts of power:  “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet”, “Diamond Mine”, “Girl in Green”.  There’s country jazz (“Piranha Pool”), songs for singalongs (“Cynthia”) and even comedic stories of heartbreak (“Florida”).  Jaw-dropping musicianship ensures there is never a dull moment.  Even the slow dance hit ballad “After the Rain” boasts a long, noisy guitar jam at the end.  Blue Rodeo are fearless on stage and this album delivers that.

Some fans noticed that earlier tracks from Outskirts such as “Rebel” and “Joker’s Wild” were seldom played as Blue Rodeo amassed more and more studio albums.  Thanks to HMV, one bonus track is available to add to this live collection:  “Joker’s Wild”, from their promotional Stardust Picnic Sampler CD.  The back cover of the Stardust CD claims there was no room left for “Joker’s Wild” on Just Like a Vacation, but that’s not true.  The first disc is under an hour, and the second is 1:07.  Lots of room on either disc for a four minute bonus track!  Regardless, here is “Joker’s Wild”, a rarity to be sure since it was never available for purchase.  “Joker’s Wild” is done acoustically, very different from the original version.  It transforms from a spy movie theme to a swampy jam with slide and fiddle.

Sure, you could go and buy a Blue Rodeo Greatest Hits CD with your hard-earned dollars.  That’ll get you 14 songs; this’ll get you 22.  Blue Rodeo songs are just as great live as they were in the studio, just different.  You won’t have to suffer through a too-loud audience track, so get Just Like a Vacation instead and experience Blue Rodeo in the venue they were intended for — the stage.  There are even liner notes with a story or two about every song.  It’s a package to be enjoyed for a long period of time, and years later you will still smile.

5/5 stars

 

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

R.I.P. James Gray

JAMES

R.I.P. James Gray ex-Blue Rodeo, ex-Rheostatics, 1960-2013.  I saw him live in concert a few times, and he was great.  It’s hard to replace a character like Bobby Wiseman, but I think James did an excellent job.

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

PALACE OF GOLD_0004

REVIEW: Blue Rodeo – Tremolo (1997)

TREMOLO_0001

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