In early February, Blue Rodeo, one of my favourite all-time bands to see in concert was playing the Sanderson Centre in Brantford, Ontario. The back-to-back dates there were the first shows for the full band since late fall, wrapping up a huge tour that took them across Canada, the United States and, memorably, the Grey Cup half-time show.
I’ve seen Blue Rodeo play many times over the years, most often at the Sanderson Centre and the GM Centre in Oshawa. Each venue has its own distinct vibe. The Sanderson has terrific acoustics and, despite its size, the former movie theatre is an intimate space. The GM Centre, on the other hand, is the home to the Oshawa Generals OHA hockey club and has the feel—and the sound, of an arena.
The latest Brantford show is probably the best Blue Rodeo concert I’ve ever attended. Yet, they were not particularly tight and the show had some technical difficulties. Our seats were right up front, second row and it was great to see/hear the on-stage communication—spoken and unspoken—among the band-mates.
When the band took the stage, Cuddy was followed out by what I thought was the newly—and amazingly—chiselled frame of Greg Keelor. But it wasn’t, and Cuddy said he’d have more to say about how the night was going to unfold after the first song. Like many people in audience, my first thought was that Keelor was sick that night, or perhaps worse.
After a solid It Could Happen to You, Cuddy explained that Keelor would be on later in the show and that Colin Cripps (Crash Vegas, Junkhouse, Headstones), would sub for Keelor who was having hearing troubles. That also meant Keelor’s set would be without drum-kit. Cuddy had some fun, wondering aloud if Keelor was becoming like Elvis, wanting to be the headliner with the rest of the guys just being ‘the band’. It was good natured fun—I think.
Cuddy also explained that drummer Glenn Milchem was expecting a phone call that could come at any time, sending him back to Toronto for the birth of his child. The call did not come during show— I’m not sure if he’s a new daddy yet at the time of this writing.
A few songs into the night, Cuddy performed Bulletproof, a song I’ve not heard him play much in concert the past couple of years. His voice remains as fresh as ever, never betraying its 56 (!) years. Take a look at this video of Blue Rodeo on Letterman 1991 singing Trust Yourself. Other than a few gray hairs, Cuddy looks the same!
Keelor came out to sustained applause, singing several songs, including Is it You and Cynthia with Cuddy. During one song—I don’t recall which one now—Keelor hand-signalled Cuddy to move off. Cuddy’s perpetual stage smile receded and he stepped back, giving Keelor the room he wanted. It made for a few awkward moments later as Cuddy moved back to his own microphone. Keelor’s vocals on To Love Somebody were as haunting as ever. And in that song, I realized that as much as I enjoy Keelor’s and Cuddy’s solo singing, it is the magic they work singing in harmony that is the core sound of Blue Rodeo.
Wayne Petti of Oshawa band Cuff the Duke also sang harmony, accompanying Cuddy on several songs with Keelor out of action. Petti’s been called ‘Little Greg’ because, some say, he resembles a young Greg Keelor. When Petti sings with Cuddy, he keeps a constant eye, displaying a mix of respect and mild angst. Short in stature, Petti defiantly kept his microphone the same height as Cuddy’s, standing on his toes to reach. What he may lack in height Petti more than makes up in performance. Petti fits right in with Blue Rodeo and is a terrific talent.
The final encore was Lost Together, often the closing song at a Blue Rodeo concert. With Keelor back on the stage, the song unfolded acoustically with no drums or electric guitars. For the final verse, I saw something I’d never seen before, and may never again. Bazil Donovon, who usually plays a solid bass guitar, had an acoustic guitar in hand. I could see and hear both Keelor and Cuddy encouraging Donovon to step up to the microphone. Keelor was even shouting the lyrics of the verse over to Donovon, who finally stepped to the front and sang the verse alone. The crowd went wild.
I thought I’d list my top ten favourite Blue Rodeo songs. And yeah, based on this list, I guess I am “a little more Keelor than Cuddy.” It was tough, but here they are:
1. 5 Days In May
3. Blue House
5. Dark Angel
6. Diamond Mine
7. Glad To Be Alive
8. Lost Together
Bonus Track (original by the Bee Gees)
11. To Love Somebody
John Ecker | Pantheon