What: Blue Rodeo
Where: Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre
When: Saturday night
Rating: 3 1/2 stars (out of five)
It's not fair to expect a band to be what it was 30 years ago. That said, it's hard not be nostalgic for the ol' Blue Rodeo, when Bobby Wiseman hammered the organ like a demented monkey and Greg Keelor swaggered like a rockabilly John Wayne, firing off fractured guitar solos.
The 2014 model (let's face it) lacks the spit and fire of the early version. That said, Blue Rodeo still puts on a good show. And the band is touring its solid new album, In Our Nature, that proves these old dogs still have a few tricks up their sleeves.
Saturday's show — 3 1/2 hours including intermissions — had Blue Rodeo playing two sets. The first was dedicated to In Our Nature, with the band rewarding 3,059 fans at Save-on-Foods arena with a hit-studded second set. Not surprisingly, it was the latter half that got a well-behaved crowd on its feet. While In Our Nature boasts its share of tuneful material, it's an acoustic-style effort that, in concert, came off as ho-hum at times.
The most notable change in Blue Rodeo of late is singer-guitarist Keelor's decision to trade his electric guitar for an acoustic. Keelor, who co-fronts the band with Jim Cuddy, no longer plays solo. And his voice, while still effective on some tunes, often sounded fragile and grainy, although he still sounded good on songs such as Lost Together and Diamond Mine.
That said, this is one of the better versions of a band which has seen numerous personnel changes over the decades. Mike Boguski is the strongest keyboard player Blue Rodeo's had since Wiseman, and Colin Cripps is a skilled, tasteful lead guitarist. Cuddy's singing is as strong as ever, particularly on those big, juicy ballads.
The biggest, juiciest ballad is Try, a truly great Canadian love song offered as an encore. Immediately following, Blue Rodeo was joined by the Devin Cuddy Band — which opened the evening with a strong set of roots music — for Lost Together. It was heart warming to see Jim Cuddy benevolently look on as his shaggy-haired son sang a verse.
Sonically, In Our Nature has a warm, get-back-the-the-country glow. Lyrically, it's a bit depressing — many of the songs ponder failed romantic relationships. Thus we heard downers like Keelor's Paradise, which begins with the line "For all the wounds that never heal" and had the singer sounding decidedly unexcited while ruminating about snatched moments of forbidden ecstasy.
Among the notable new tunes: the steadily chugging Mattawa, Made Your Mind Up (a 6/8 time tune with an elegiac, Free Bird-style piano intro and strong lead guitar from Cripps) and When the Truth Comes Out , a Cuddy power-ballad that commences on a down note ("Everyone I've known, they've been cut to the bone") yet has a redemptive subtext. To liven up a lukewarm opening set, the band tossed in a countrified interpretation of the Rolling Stones' Last Time, which was.. well, just sort of OK.
While Blue Rodeo's post-intermission performance was obviously a dessert to follow the main course, it wasn't quite a greatest hits package. Yes, we got Diamond Mine, with Boguski reeling off minimalist piano and organ fills that — rather than noodling — created genuine excitement. Sure, we got Five Days in May as well as the touching version What Am I Doing Here (just Cuddy and Keelor on acoustic guitars) that capped the evening. After the Rain was possibly the night's best performance, with Cuddy doing some convincing soul-style singing.
Yet the crowd-pleasing saunter down memory lane also included the seldom-performed Girl of Mine (Cuddy said the lyrics used to bum audiences out) and House of Dreams, which took flight after a misstart or two.
There's no doubt Blue Rodeo is — with the Barenaked Ladies and the Tragically Hip — one of Canada's legendary bands of the 1990s. The audience's affection could be heard as well as felt during Hasn't Hit Me Yet, with an obviously pleased Keelor letting the audience sing the opening verse before joining in himself.
The Devin Cuddy Band opened with an enjoyable set that tapped tipped its hat to The Band, 1960s jug-band music, New Orleans R & B and pre-war Americana. Devin, accompanying himself on piano, mentioned his admiration of Randy Newman before singing the satirical ditty, My Son's a Queer. It's a good band — and he's a strong singer with a voice that's darker and grainier than his dad's.