On a blustery Saturday night in the winter of 1988, I walked through the snow to a friend’s gathering in his basement to listen to records and hang out. I was 17 and already had been playing in a band for about two years, so every bit of time outside the classroom was spent either playing guitar or listening to records. That night my friend unwrapped a new album from a Toronto band called Blue Rodeo and put the record on the turntable. The black and white cover featured what looked like four moody greasers and one college student, all in a grey silhouette giving the camera a unified expression of muted suspicion. The music was similarly dark, brooding, edgy, and laden with old-school echo. The songs sounded both foreign and familiar, giving me the sensation of being in a strange house full of recognizable ghosts.
Of course by this time the whole country was aware of Outskirts’ lead single “Try,” thanks to the video channel MuchMusic which in the mid-to-late 80’s made instant national stars out of local bands from across the country by airing their videos. It was in essence the golden age of popular music in Canada, when Canadian artists would come to a town and get mobbed by screaming fans. A good example of this phenomenon can be witnessed in the 1987 movie Tears are Not Enough, the making of the Northern Lights for Africa song in aid of famine in Ethiopia. At the beginning of the movie, artists such as Cory Hart and Platinum Blonde enter the studio with throngs of young girls fawning all over them.
Although fans still admire and support Canadian musicians, this era of mania – largely spawned by MuchMusic and other video shows – is gone. But back during this zenith of musical popularity, Blue Rodeo fared as well as any of them, rising to star status within perhaps a year or so following the release of Outskirts in 1987. The video for “Try” concentrated on capturing the band’s brooding essence. Other videos followed, which enlightened fans to Greg Keelor’s status as co-frontman and the other principle writer for the band. Songs such as “Outskirts” and “Joker is Wild” widened the band’s appeal to admirers of the new wave/punkabilly style brought to favour in England during the late ‘70s, compliments of artists such as Rockpile and Elvis Costello – who, along with Blue Rodeo, fused country elements with punk to deliver a refreshing, energetic and raw style of rock and roll.
About a year after first hearing Blue Rodeo’s plaintive musings on record, I had the opportunity to see them in concert for two nights at Memorial University in March of 1989. I also had the fortunate opportunity to open both shows – playing guitar with The Brats, a local band that I had joined the previous summer. I remember going to soundcheck on the Friday afternoon and being somewhat alarmed at the appearance of the men on stage checking their gear. You have to keep in mind that this was 1989, at the height of cock-rock and metal. Most musicians were dressed like their younger sisters, yet these guys were dressed like truckers. They resembled extras from the Wild Bunch, and it was exciting: cowboy boots, mesh baseball hats, leather/sheepskin jackets, dirty jeans, and slicked-back hair. And there I stood in my multi-coloured, elastic-waist winter parka and tapered jeans, sporting a mullet. I could not have felt any more uncool at that moment. This was my first lesson in rock fashion, and I was vigorously taking mental notes.
Standing by the side of the stage watching soundcheck, I was approached by a tall, slim figure; he looked like a mix between Clint Eastwood and Wayne Gretzky. He extended his hand warmly and greeted me, “Hi, I’m Jim. Nice to meet you.” He didn’t know whether I was in the opening band or delivering pizza backstage, but he was nevertheless friendly and laid back. I was struck by his easy manner but more so by his presence. Anyone who’s met Jim Cuddy knows what I am talking about; the mixture of friendliness and aura is disarming. The other members were similarly friendly if a bit more quiet. Greg Keelor and I weren’t formally introduced, and to be honest he was a bit intimidating. But after the show we sat and passed his orange Gretsch electric guitar back and forth and he showed me the proper way to play “Rose-Coloured Glasses,” a hit on the radio at the time and in our cover band set list. At 18 years old, I was quite enamored by these mysterious guys from Toronto; their world was a universe away from my relatively sheltered existence in the suburbs of an isolated island in the middle of the cold Atlantic. This was before the internet ultimately broke down the barrier left between Newfoundland and the rest of the world. Yes, in 1989 we had cable television. But other than that or the odd family trip to the mainland (which I had never experienced), my friends and I were left to the devices of the good old library for exposure to anything foreign. So my reaction to the members of Blue Rodeo was likely akin to the reaction of locals when the American military moved into points throughout the island back in the 1940s. It was something different, unique and almost exotic. My dreams of being a rock star were fueled all the more by having these Canadian stars as my “friends.”
Soon after this concert I moved with my parents to Ottawa where my father had accepted a promotion at Canada Post. I took a job at the local IGA grocery store and settled into a routine of dreaming about music while going through the motions of a brutally boring day job. I wrote a letter to Blue Rodeo and addressed it to their label, Risque Disque, after obtaining it from the album cover of their 1989 album Diamond Mine. In the letter I thanked them for a great time in Newfoundland and offered my services as a guitar tech, roadie, or anything else they might need. To my surprise, I received a call shortly afterward from their manager, asking if I was available for a fall tour being Jim’s guitar tech. I excitedly accepted the offer and started to get my affairs in order for a tour that was only a few months away. This preparation included buying a book on how to solder guitar pickups, learning to set intonation, etc. I took a summer trip to Toronto to meet their manager and get an update on what was going on. Unfortunately, soon after this trip I got a call saying that a more experienced guitar tech had quit another prominent band and was available to Jim. I was disappointed but understood that they had to take the more experienced guy over me. However, I was offered free tickets and passes to virtually any future Blue Rodeo that happened in my vicinity. I took full advantage of this and went to see them repeatedly in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal between 1989 and 1991. During these concerts I had opportunities to talk to the guys. They didn’t really remember me that well, but were nonetheless friendly. Greg would get annoyed with me from time to time – probably because I was everywhere all the time. But I took it in stride. My juvenile mind saw it fit that rock stars should be cantankerous.
By 1993 I had moved back to Newfoundland and then to Toronto, where I was writing songs prolifically and playing with a band in the Queen Street West clubs called Dead Reckoning. I didn’t see much of Blue Rodeo during this time, but I was well aware of Five Days in July, a powerhouse collection of their most finely-honed songs to date. I was invited to these recording sessions by a friend of theirs but couldn’t make it due to gigs I had booked in Newfoundland. I didn’t see much of them in ’94-’95, but did hook up with them again in Halifax in early ’96 when they did a string of shows at the Rebecca Cohn auditorium. I ran into Bazil Donovan playing pool in a local bar, and after helping him with some gear logistics in the city he gave me tickets and passes for all five nights. We hung out one afternoon in his hotel room, and after realizing we shared an affinity for the Blind Faith album, he sang “Presence of the Lord” acapella for me.
In early ’97 Greg Keelor was on the road promoting his solo album. We ran into each other at the Diamond Club in Halifax. I was in the studio recording my first solo album (after moving there a short time earlier), and after jokingly asking him to come sing on it, he agreed. The next day he came to the studio and stayed for the afternoon, singing on three songs, playing us his solo album, and having a nap on the couch. It was a memorable moment sharing harmonies with him on the same microphone. The afternoon session turned into an evening and then late-night party as we hooked up with Lennie Gallant, Con O’Brien, Stuart Cameron, my brother Andrew, and a few other cronies to hit the town. Keelor was off the booze, but 22 Minutes star Greg Thomey managed to coax him off the wagon. The party started at the Diamond bar, moved to the Liquor Dome, and ended up in his hotel room at Cambridge Suites. (At the liquor Dome a band was playing. On their break, Greg – clad in a John Deere mesh-back baseball cap and white dart league jacket – walked up around the stage to take a look at the amps and guitars. Not recognizing Greg, a band member approached him and told him to get away from the gear. Greg said nothing and passively came back to the bar.) I actually got to the hotel room first with Greg, and he sang “Dark Angel” with just two of us there. As the musical guests poured in the room, Greg’s Martin acoustic circulated around the room as everyone sang their best songs. I remember a hotel staff member coming to the door to complain about the noise and Greg somehow pacifying him. To this day I think he slipped the guy a hundred-dollar bill.
After moving back to Newfoundland upon my debut album’s release, I sporadically kept in touch with Greg via the phone. In the summer of 1998 they came to Newfoundland to do an outdoor concert, and Bazil called me to ask if I wanted to be on the guest list. And in March of 2000 they had me open for them solo at the Delta Ballroom for two consecutive shows. At this time I also began playing pedal steel guitar and subsequently befriended Bob Egan who started playing steel with Blue Rodeo in 1999. When we first met at the Delta shows he wasn’t particularly warm to me. So I signed a copy of my solo album “To grumpy Bob” and gave it to him. About a month later I received a package in the mail with Bob’s return address. Inside was a signed copy of his solo CD, signed “from grumpy Bob.” We’ve been friends ever since, and whenever he comes to Newfoundland we do our best to get together. Brothers in Stereo backed him up for a concert in St. John’s in 2005. It was a memorable experience. Bob brings his own musical legacy to Blue Rodeo, having toured with Wilco and Billy Bragg among others. As is the case with most American musicians I know, he is a thoughtful guy with a heart of gold.
During the 2000s I would see the Blue Rodeo guys whenever they came to town. It continued to be a friendly, casual acquaintanceship. When I was on the road with Brothers in Stereo touring through Ontario in 2004, I called Greg to say hi and bring him up to date on what I was doing musically. He seemed glad to hear from me. It was nice touching base with him. I was always careful over the years not to call him too much. He had given me his number in confidence and I didn’t want to abuse that privilege.
In 2008 they played Mile One Centre, and Bob put my girlfriend and me on the guestlist. I ran into Jim backstage during soundcheck and he told me that he had seen me on cable TV playing pedal steel. He was on his way to play hockey, so we chatted again a bit after the show. Always friendly and charming, I like to observe fans swarming Jim at meet-and-greets. He handles them like a pro. Greg sits back a bit more and lets them come to him, which is also entertaining to watch. I’ve never seen a Canadian band more loved by its fans.
In April 2010 the Junos came to St. John’s. Friend, co-writer, and fellow musician Lennie Gallant came to town and stayed at my place. He also recruited me as his guitarist for a couple of shows he was doing around town during the event. We attended the Juno gala, and afterwards we went to the Warner afterparty at Bianca’s restaurant. There was a small stage set up in one of the rooms, and Alan Doyle was in charge of organizing a jam. After I backed up Ron Hynes and Lennie on lead guitar for some songs they performed, Alan asked me if I would play lead with Jim and some of the other Blue Rodeo guys. I nervously agreed, and watched Alan with trepidation as he approached Jim to tell him I was joining them on the jam. Jim’s facial reaction was fairly skeptical, as he had never actually played with me before. However, once I caught the signature lick to “Til I Am Myself Again,” all was well and we launched into a 45-minute set of Blue Rodeo classics. Of course I knew them all. I felt vindicated as a musician when during “Falling Down Blue” I turned to Bazil and drummer Glenn Milchem with a chugging guitar riff, and they both picked up on it and enthusiastically followed the groove. To play with these world-class musicians was an opportunity rarely afforded a relatively unknown club player. After the set Jim hugged me and planted a wet kiss on my cheek. I considered it both a gesture of approval and a coming of age. As I walked off the stage, I remarked to Alan Doyle, “That was just incredible, man.” To my surprise, he looked at me wide-eyed and said “I know!” I realized at that point that even though Alan had played with a lot of big-name musicians, something about connecting with Blue Rodeo took us right back to 1992 when we were both playing their songs solo in the nightclubs of downtown St. John’s. A few days later he wrote in his website blog about the jam, stating that, “Chris LeDrew and I were trying hard to act like it wasn’t the most amazing night of our musical lives.” No truer words have been spoken.
In November 2011 Jim Cuddy performed at the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s as part of his solo tour. I had a basket of fruit sent to his hotel room, figuring he had seen enough grease on his week-long tour of the province. I was right. He sent me a text the next day, stating his appreciation for the nutrition. He also mentioned he had tried to get me on as an opening act but the promoter had already booked someone else, and he promised to try again next time through. Being on the other side of forty, I try these days to keep my star-struck feelings in check. However, getting a text from Jim Cuddy is not exactly a casual daily occurrence. So I decided to let myself enjoy that feeling once more – one that I first experienced meeting these guys all those years ago when I was a teenager.
Documenting my experiences with Blue Rodeo puts into perspective their impact on me both musically and personally. A lot of what I do on guitar is from the lick catalogues of Jim and Greg, and from them I also learned the importance of treating everyone with respect – particularly fans who admire your music and support your endeavours. I look forward to the next time I get to spend some time with the guys; luckily for all of Canada, they are still going strong.