There’s no denying the value and importance of Blue Rodeo in Canadian Music. Their sound, ethic, steadfast Canadianism, and ethos can be heard and felt across the spectrum of Canadian music, and will continue to be for a long time. Their trailblazing success with Outskirts and everything that came after, their dominance of the pop charts for so long, their long reign as one of the biggest draws on stage, and their staunch support of so many other great Canadian musicians has earned them a place of reverence and legend.
Unfortunately, that makes it easy to write off anything new that they do. It’s true, they haven’t done anything truly essential for a long time. But they’re still making new music. They don’t have to. They could easily coast on the past and continue to live on the success that they built in the 80s and 90s. Every summer bonfire is treated to something off of Five Days in July. So why do they make new music, and why do they try to make it great?
The nostalgia circuit is filled with bands playing the old hits. Yes, most of them pump out something new in some last ditch attempt to pry some dollars out of whatever fans are still standing, or perhaps as a last grasp at reclaiming whatever glory was lost years ago. And most of it is crap. Yes, I’ve gone to see Loverboy, The Northern Pikes, Honeymoon Suite, Glass Tiger, and a whole pile of other bands from my youth looking to relive those moments of bliss from long ago. Occasionally the moments do come, but they’re fleeting, and by the end of the show, I’m left wishing that I’d left the past behind – it’s always better in your memories than reality.
But I don’t think I’ve ever been able to truly say that about Blue Rodeo. I’ve seen that band dozens of times over the years at festivals and concerts, watched them on TV and DVD, and every time, I’m impressed that they still actually care. There doesn’t seem to be any of that pretence. They know that people are coming to the shows to hear the hits, and they have more than enough of them to fill the time. But they always try to politely push the new. I’ll be honest, for a lot of years, those attempts were admired, but lost on me. Even in those times, the performance of the hits was enough to overcome any disappointment in the new material.
But tonight they did something a little different. They played a set of all new material, warning people what they were in for, and then saved all of the classics for one glorious greatest hits set. I think that looking at the two as two separate entities – the band still making music that’s meaningful and enjoyable for them, and the band who can please so many with old songs – worked really well. Without being lumped in with the classics, the new songs were able to stand on their own, in the proper context. We weren’t waiting for the next big hit to come, because we knew that they wouldn’t come until much later. Those not interested in the new material could congregate in the lobby and drink, and the rest of us could enjoy the new material for what it is.
And while I don’t have any delusions of this album being the next 5 Days in July, it was enjoyable. They really put a lot into the new material, and performed it with enough potency to really get it across, even in spite of the fact that most of the new material is slower. I found myself impressed by what they’d done lately.
Later came the greatest hits, and as mentioned before, they’ve got plenty. And they’re amazing. But we’ve heard them a million times before. When I saw Loverboy do Workin’ for the Weekend for the 18,000th time, it showed. They were tired of the song, and I was disappointed that they’d lost something over the years. But who doesn’t? Well, Jim Cuddy sure doesn’t. Name me a guy who’s been singing with such power for 30 years who sounds the way he did back then… can’t do it. I know I got shit for saying that McCartney can’t sing at all any more, but I stand by it, and I think in your heart of hearts, you know I’m right. All of those old guys have lost much of their range. We won’t even talk about the trainwreck that is Bob Dylan. But then there’s Cuddy, still babyfaced and grinning from ear to ear, and there aren’t many notes that he can’t still hit. Greg always sounded a little rough, so not much has changed there, but even he sounds smooth and dynamic, even after his hearing is gone and he can’t wail on the guitar anymore.
Nobody could be blamed for not really enjoying playing the same songs night after night for 20 or 30 years, but these guys seem immune. I imagine it’s because of the solo work and the time they spend apart, and there’s been plenty over the years. I would imagine that’s saved them and kept them going for this long. If they were truly full time Blue Rodeo, it wouldn’t last, and the wear would start to show.
The band that I saw tonight was not coasting, not reluctantly plowing through songs that they knew people came to hear – they were enjoying those songs and feeling the love from the crowd. I don’t know how it’s possible, but they played songs from 1987, songs they’ve done at every show ever since, and they did it with joy and reverence. And that’s something you have to admire, even if, like me, you don’t need to hear some of those songs again. If I could go to a Blue Rodeo show just once and not hear Try and Lost Together at the end, I would be overjoyed. I’d pay double to see that show. Those are great songs, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t need to hear them at the end of EVERY show they ever do. I don’t need to hear them again. Ever.
But even this bitter curmudgeon found himself singing along a little bit and moving in my seat in spite of my own disapproval, because they were having fun, the crowd was eating it up, and everybody still cared, as if those songs were new. So I’ll begrudgingly let them do those two songs in the same spot in the show every time. I’ll roll my eyes and make jokes, but secretly, I’m impressed. And I hope I always will be. Every time this band comes to town, I figure I don’t need to go, because I’ve seen it all before. But somehow I always seem to find myself at the show, and I can’t help but be glad that I went. I do kind of wish that Bobby Wiseman had actually been on stage, though, not just a slip of the tongue. That would be cool. That could make me excited to hear those songs again…