Greg Keelor’s Last Winter
If you’re a Blue Rodeo fan this has been a great year for solo albums from the band. First came Jim Cuddy’s Constellation and now band co-founder Greg Keelor gives us Last Winter.
The release is a deeply personal one for the veteran musician. Recorded at his farm during one of The Great White North’s greatest and whitest winters of recent memory, his fifth solo outing finds Keelor searching inward to populate the sonic landscape of this four-song EP. He admits he needed a retreat in order to process his current state of body and mind into these new songs having recently faced larger physical challenges from touring as well as receiving news that many of those close to him have been dealing with their own precarious health issues.
“What I’ve done my whole life is to take those sorts of things and translate them into song because that is how I figure everything out,” says Keelor.
“It’s how I place myself emotionally and physically in the world. It’s the way I sort information. I learn through singing. Singing is what connects me to the river of song. And, so I just started playing, but my body – arms, elbows, ears – were so messed up I could only play the songs that are on this record. They’re kind of quiet, meditative, yogic songs.”
Also joining Keelor on Last Winter are Aaron Hoffman and Shamus Currie (paino/Hammond), Ian McKeown (electric bass / drums), Daniel Neill (drums), James McKenty (synth) and Ashley Moffat (backing vocals). However, it is multi-instrumentalist Jim Bowskill’s soothing and sometimes ethereal stings that helps anchor the material and accentuate Keelor’s familiar, often mournful vocals.
“Recording is always such an amazing experience. I love musicians for their capability and eagerness to get in to that landscape where everything drifts away and you’re just connected in the river of song,” Keelor reflects.
The album really began at The Tragically Hip’s Toronto show during the group’s historic final tour with the late Gord Downie. Keelor, in attendance that night, describes the experience as beautiful and inspiring, channeling that sentiment into Last Winter’s opening track “Gord’s Tune”.
“The part of the show I found most inspiring was when they transformed the arena into fire and lightning. That expressed more to me than any words, any song. It was such a brave act. There was just something so beautiful and moving about what Gord was doing. He could inspire so many people. Inspiration is such an amazing thing.”
There’s a couple of Blue Rodeo tunes that feature hotel rooms ("English Bay", "Til I Am Myself Again", "Outskirts", "Is It You" spring to mind) . . . the way stations of creation for the traveling musician. In just one more in Montreal during the Christmas season, Keelor found himself sitting out on a balcony feeling as though he was surrounded by death. It caused him to question just where he was in everything that was happening around him at this point of his life and channeled it into the lyrics for “City is A Symphony”.
“We’re in this funny galaxy, supposedly going around the sun. We’re spinning around at this huge speed but we stick to the ground because of gravity. I was in one of those kind of states just trying to find my place.”
“Early in the Morning” is like a prayer in song, says Keelor of his reworking of the old blues tune also covered by Peter, Paul and Mary, Van Morrison, B.B. King and Eric Clapton. “Three Coffins” ends the personal nature of the album with him touching upon the search and finding of his birth mother and her recent passing.
“A few years ago she had a stroke and she was pretty out of it this one night. My mother, her sister Martha, my cousin Paul and I were sitting in her house and Martha and my mother had a couple glasses of wine. Now, my mother and my aunt are a couple of real Cape Breton mystics and they believe in Jesus but they are devotees of the Holy Spirit. She’d just come back from the hospital, we were all talking and she was quiet and off in the corner. Suddenly she said: “There’ll be three coffins.” We all stopped and looked at her. “There’ll be three coffins. There’ll be one for you,” and she points at me. “And there’s one for Martha and one for me,” meaning herself. “And they’ll take us to the river and lay us gently in the stream, we’ll float out into the ocean, we’ll sink beneath the waves and there we will stay until we become fish and start again.”
You can next catch Keelor on stage when Blue Rodeo makes their welcome return to Ottawa's RBC Bluesfest this summer!