The Canadian music landscape is mighty different now than it was back in 1987, when country-rockers Blue Rodeo released their debut album Outskirts.
At the time, new CanCon rulings ensured an up-and-coming band like Blue Rodeo would get plenty of airplay alongside the likes of Bryan Adams and k.d. lang, encouraging many potential new fans to go and buy the band’s album at their favourite HMV or A&B Sound (remember those places?).
Twenty-five years later, the Juno-winning band fronted by the singing/songwriting pair of Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor soldiers on as one of Canada’s most beloved musical gems.
“Blue Rodeo is the weirdest thing in the world,” Keelor said in a recent phone interview. “It seems like I’ve lived a few lifetimes in this band — so many different incarnations, different intoxications, different moods and different girlfriends. It’s been a ridiculously generous career.”
Keelor recalled the band was “quite willing to put in the hours” it took to make it in the ever-shifting environment known as the music business.
But if you wanted to work, there were plenty of venues to do it, and bars had not yet made the shift to pre-programmed satellite radio or button-pushing DJs, offering bands like Blue Rodeo plenty of job opportunities.
“The very first tour we did of Canada was opening up for k.d. lang,” Keelor said. “When I think of that era — ’87 or so — the whole support of the music industry really benefited bands like us — that independent voice that was coming up at the time, whether it was the Cowboy Junkies or 54-40, Sloan and The Tragically Hip.
“The cultural landscape was different: Radio played us, people bought records and there were lots of places for us to play. There was a trickle-down sort of thing with producers and promoters and so on. It really was a golden era.”
Looking at the band’s latest eight-disc box set spanning the years 1987-93, a prolific period that peaked with the release of landmark album Five Days In July, one can’t avoid juxtaposing Blue Rodeo’s rise to stardom with the explosion of Seattle’s grunge scene, which stood at the complete opposite end of the spectrum of what the band was doing at the time.
While everyone was borrowing from Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Blue Rodeo realized it wanted to emulate Harvest.
“I was conscious of [grunge] and there was a lot of it I quite liked,” Keelor said. “When we started doing demos for what was going to end up being Five Days, we had a lot of electric stuff.
“We had about 30 songs demoed and it just seemed so evident that all the acoustic stuff had a resonance the electric stuff didn’t have. So that was a big page-turner for us.
“We had to convince the label to do a record like Five Days, a record that had maybe two electric guitar parts on it at a time when everything else was totally fuzzed-out.”
The box set, released in September, includes remastered versions of Blue Rodeo’s first five records, an extra disc of “odds and ends” that were never released, and a completely remixed version of Outskirts that Keelor described as the band’s own director’s cut of its debut.
“We put in different piano intros and organ solos. We used vocals that would have been the off-the-floor vocals instead of the overdubs. We put in things that we enjoyed better than the choices [producer Terry Brown] made at the time.
“But you can’t be too pissed off about a record that made you a popular band. Even though the drum sounds on Outskirts drive me nuts because they have that gated reverb thing of the ’80s — we sound like Bryan Adams or Tears for Fears, whatever that sound was — it got us on the radio and our funny little band got popular because of it.”
While the band is touring across the country celebrating 25 years of Outskirts with a set that Keelor said would include songs never performed live and alternative takes on old favourites, Blue Rodeo is about halfway done with a new record.
Keelor said some of the band’s new songs should also make it into the setlist for forthcoming concerts at Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre on Saturday and Victoria’s Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre on Sunday.
“One of the delightful things of reflecting on a career is seeing how fate has steered the ship more than anybody’s ambition or talent.
“I find that a very pleasant thing to see: So many choices were made and so many mistakes were made that ended up leading to things that helped in our longevity as a band.”
When: Sunday, 8 p.m.
Where: Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre
Tickets: $25, $42.50, $55.50, plus service charges
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