Blue Rodeo – History in the Making

Blue Rodeo- History in the Making

1987-1993 – 8-CD Box Set

Blue Rodeo are a Canadian treasure, simple as that. It’s rare enough for a band to be able to produce well-crafted, poignant, and honest musical gems, but to do so with the consistency and quality that Blue Rodeo have done for more than two decades now, is an outstanding achievement. This country has produced some remarkably talented bands and musicians, but Blue Rodeo, like their stalwarts, The Tragically Hip, have through sheer talent, hard work, outstanding songwriting and a unique musical chemistry, earned a hallowed place in our collective Canadian consciousness. Few bands or musicians are able to transcend themselves and their particular genre to become more than the sum of their parts, but Blue Rodeo have, in some sense, become iconic.

Blue Rodeo have released 12 full-length studio albums, three live recordings, one greatest hits package and five video/DVDs. Their studio albums have sold over three million copies worldwide, not to mention the band members’ countless solo projects and side-projects producing other bands, one of the most notable being Greg Keelor’s work with phenomenal Canadian alt-country darlings Cuff the Duke. They’ve also collaborated with many other musical icons, from Sarah McLachlan to Burton Cummings, each time bringing their own unique flavor to such collaborations. Over their 20+-year career, they’ve won umpteen Canadian music awards, including seven Juno Awards and seven SOCAN (the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada) awards, and in 2009, were rightfully honored with a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto. They are only the fifth band in Canadian music history to receive such an honor.

So the recently released box set, Blue Rodeo 1987-1993, seems like the perfect way to commemorate and celebrate the band’s 25-year anniversary in the music business. The 8-disc set is a mix of newly remastered and remixed versions of the band’s first five albums. Disc 1: Outskirts (remastered), Disc 2: Outskirts (remixed), Disc 3: Diamond Mine (remastered), Disc 4: Casino (remastered), Disc 5: Casino (demos), Disc 6: Lost Together (remastered), Disc 7: Five Days in July (remastered); and Disc 8, Odds & Ends, a collection of previously unreleased material, demos and outtakes.

The package also includes a beautiful 44-page booklet of liner notes, with rare photos, and an insightful and evocative essay written by Exclaim Magazine assistant editor Jason Schneider, in which the band speaks openly and candidly about their early days in the business, and their reactions to the trappings of success. Band founding members Jim Cuddy (guitar/vocals), Greg Keelor (guitar/vocals) and Bazil Donovan (bass) have been together since Blue Rodeo’s humble beginnings, and it must be a wondrous thing to be able to look back at 25 years’ worth of music.

So let’s take them one at a time, shall we? The set opener is, of course, Outskirts (Disc1- remastered, Disc 2 – remixed), and it’s certainly one of the band’s darker albums. The tone and lyrics of songs like Try and Rose-Coloured Glasses, two of the record’s four singles, certainly reflected that. The impetus to remix Outskirts initially came from Keelor, as he was never really satisfied with how the songs, and consequently the band, sounded with the original production of the album.

Diamond Mine (Disc 3 – remastered) is a warm, relaxed album with a spontaneous delivery that runs somewhat contrary to the intensity of their previous album’s recording process. It was the band’s first attempt at producing themselves, and its title track, buoyed by Keelor’s earnest and immediate vocals, crystallized the essence and earnestness of this album.

Discs 4 and 5, featuring the remastered version of Casino, along with some of the album’s original demo recordings, are among my personal favorites in this set. Originally produced by L.A.-based Pete Anderson, Casino had a tighter and more streamlined feel overall than previous albums. This disc has some great demo versions too, and hearing how the songs evolved from the beginning of the writing process straight through to the recording stage is utterly fascinating. Beautifully crafted gems like Trust Yourself, After the Rain, and Til I Am Myself Again, make it easy to see why this album did so well.

The remastered version of the band’s fourth studio album, Lost Together – Disc 6 in the set – was actually the last record with the band’s longtime keyboardist Bob Wiseman. This record also has one of my all-time favorite Blue Rodeo songs, namely Rain Down on Me. Cuddy’s powerful and emotional vocal performance gives the song a deep and rich otherworldly resonance. The beauty and scope of Lost Together went on to win the band even more fans.

Disc 7, 5 Days in July (remastered) has a substantively different vibe compared to some of their other records: lighter, more carefree, sunnier almost. Whatever the reasons for that approach, it worked extremely well for the band. Most of the album was recorded on site at Keelor’s country home near Toronto. The album, bolstered by its title track and songs like Hasn’t Hit Me Yet, went on to sell close to 250,000 copies in Canada alone.

Lastly, Disc 8, the most interesting one for me, simply called Odds & Ends – a CD of previously unreleased material and various demos. Unfortunately, there are no demos here from some of the band’s most successful songs, but it’s still a great feeling to be able to hear some of the songs we’re most familiar with, change over time, evolve and come to life, sometimes in completely unexpected ways. It’s a revealing and rare, fly-on-the-wall kind of experience, and it’s one that ends up being fulfilling and rewarding for old and new listeners. The goodies and extras alone on this collection would make it worth the price of admission. Odds & Ends has the feel of a homemade mixed-tape, put together by someone in the band and only handed out to his closest friends. It’s an amazing thing to hear, and it reminded me of how much fun it used to be when I was a kid, to sit down with my fellow music nerds, listen to old Beatles records, and then try to figure out who wrote which song. There are some standout moments here, one of which, Keelor’s beautifully inviting The Ballad of the Dime Store Greaser and the Blonde Mona Lisa, for example, wraps around you warmly like an old friend, just like all the best Blue Rodeo songs do.

While some of the mastering and remixing changes may seem minor or understated, overall the tweaks have added a new dimension, a new vim and vigor to the material. Having the chance to re-experience and enjoy these songs, I’m struck by the quantity and strength of the material Blue Rodeo has written over the years. But the fact is that these are the kinds of songs that could be stripped of any studio polish whatsoever and would still, at their core, be well-crafted, resonant, heartfelt and wise. This one’s a no-brainer, folks. This much goodness under one roof, so to speak, would make a lovely Christmas present for that musically-inclined someone special in your life. Granted, an 8-CD box set may be awkward to try to stuff into a stocking, but you can get those giant sleeping-bag-sized Christmas stockings from The Dollar Store now, so problem solved.