Where: Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre
Rating: *** 1/2 (out of five)
No matter how you look at it — fan perspective or non-fan perspective — there’s a distinct likability woven into the fabric of Blue Rodeo, the scruffy but adventurous seven-piece from Ontario. Even those who claim Blue Rodeo is boring — and there’s plenty, by the way — could name a handful of songs in the Blue Rodeo canon, which in itself says something about the group’s abilities.
That aw-shucks affability has made the septet one of the most enduring Canadian acts of the last quarter-century, and the group proved during its Sunday night concert in Victoria that there’s life in its core membership, and the Blue Rodeo brand as a whole.
To the delight of the 3,187 diehards assembled in the half-bowl setting of Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, Blue Rodeo produced a soulful set of hits, new songs and deep album cuts over the course of a three-hour performance, one that seemed to be finding its feet just as the house lights came up.
The band was slow-moving at first, rambling through Cynthia, One More Night, and What Am I Doing Here without much in the way of immediate impact. The band’s two frontmen, Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor, managed to shake off the slow start with the arrival of Bad Timing, whose opening line (“Hey it’s me, what a big surprise/Calling you up from a restaurant ’round the bend”) drew immediate cheers of approval from the audience.
The two partners and longtime friends would play serve-and-volley throughout much of the night, stopping occasionally for their own moments in the sun. Cuddy hit every emotional nuance on 5 Days in May, the standout from 1993’s Five Days in July, while Keelor turned up the heat on You’re Everywhere, a rockabilly stomper from 1990’s Casino.
Blue Rodeo dipped heavily into the aforementioned albums, but it also threw some new material into the mix, to go along with some curveballs like Summer Girls, from 2007’s often-overlooked Small Miracles.
Blue Rodeo has a tough job, concert-wise: It musn’t be easy trying to please the Blue Rodeo faithful, especially with a dozen studio albums and loads of rarities to pull from. Cuddy and Keelor settled upon a mix that largely worked for both them and their audience, though portions of the set lacked an overall sense of energy.
That has always been a bone of contention with their concerts, dating back more than a decade.
In a rare turn, Keelor was the chattier of the two leads, giving fans some back story about the writing of Outskirts, which was inspired by the 1984 death of David Kennedy, the troubled son of the late Robert F. Kennedy.
Keelor’s biggest ovation came during his introduction to Fools Like You, the opening cut on 1992’s Lost Together. He spoke of the song’s First Nations protest-song beginnings — it was written as a plea to Brian Mulroney, who was prime minister at the time — and suggested its newfound relevance with regards to the Idle No More movement and fasting Chief Theresa Spence.
“So now this one now goes out to Mr. Harper,” Keelor said, to a roar from the audience.
Diamond Mine, always a highlight of Blue Rodeo concerts, delivered on its long-running reputation, topping out at nine minutes and featuring solos by keyboardist Michael Bugoski and guitarist Colin Cripps. It was the closest thing to North Country noir the band produced all night.
The group began its second set of the night seated in chairs, an acoustic set-up that gave a stripped-bare resonance to some of its new material. Every member earned their keep in this format, often chipping in on multiple instruments for songs like Head Over Heels and Montreal, which featured Bob Egan on mandolin and lap steel, and Bugoski on accordion.
A late-set highlight came when Cuddy took to the piano for After the Rain, a yearning torch song and one of the finest in the group’s catalogue. He hit it out of the park, kicking off a nine-song run that closed the band’s set in grand style.
Hasn’t Hit Me Yet had the audience in fits. Following a Keelor-led a capella singalong, a few dozen hardcore fans moved up front to dance, a distinct no-no that for once was deemed OK by security. Seeing the band happen upon a new groove, with a rapturous crowd at its feet, made me wish for the days when Blue Rodeo still played bars. Maybe that’s what was ultimately missing Sunday. Some spark. A little liveliness.
Keelor and Cuddy — and Cripps, who chimed in with vocal ferocity on the night’s final song, Lost Together — seemed to pick up steam as the night progressed, perhaps moved by the audience interaction. Longtime fans would argue that the material, if not the playing, was better and more textured in the first half. Fair point. But the arena didn’t fully come alive until the end.
What that says about the group depends on your level of Blue Rodeo fandom. But either way, you must give Blue Rodeo credit. After more than 25 years of music, they are still keeping ’em guessing.
© Copyright 2013