When fans lined Toronto’s Queen Street to get into clubs where Blue Rodeo was performing in the mid-1980s, the band felt as though they had achieved success. And, in fact, they had. But that success has grown exponentially through the ensuing three decades since they formed, and by staying authentic and true to themselves, Canada continues its enduring love affair with Blue Rodeo.
Welcome to 1000 Arms.
“This record has a lot more energy; a bit more up-tempo,” says Greg Keelor, who, along with Jim Cuddy, leads Blue Rodeo. “Jim and I are singing a lot together, and it turned out really great.”
Much of the credit for the sound of 1000 Arms can be attributed to recording in the comfort of the band’s home studio, The Woodshed, with co-producer Tim Vesely.
“Tim had been listening to all the old records, and said, ‘You guys have to sing more together.’ We were surprised. ‘Don’t we do that?’ But we realized that because we did that so naturally, which was a basic characteristic of the band, that as we moved on to records ten, eleven and twelve, we started to do different things. So we made a very concerted effort to sing together on this album, either with direct harmonies or call and response, and we really enjoyed it. It felt like we were getting back to something that was very strong for us.”
Success wasn’t immediate for Blue Rodeo when they formed in 1985. By that point, Cuddy and Keelor already had seven years together, trying to attract music industry interest. “With the successes and failures – mostly failures – it never felt authentic,” admits Cuddy. “Even when we got a little nibble of interest, we thought, ‘Can we sustain this? Are we really this band?’ So coming back to Toronto (from New York) and shedding all that mimicry was so easy. We played what we really thought was good. It was very comfortable and we could see a long road ahead.”
From the band’s inception, Blue Rodeo forged its own path. And while there were times of doubt, the band stayed true to itself, and success quickly followed. Soon, block-long line-ups to see this exciting band gave Blue Rodeo the opportunity to tour and record with radio and video airplay not far behind.
“The early days of The Horseshoe (in Toronto) when we were filling the room were so exciting. Then I would go to my job at five in the morning and all these guys would be kidding me about how shit my band was – even though they’d come out to see us all the time,” laughs Cuddy. “It can’t get any better than the first appearance of success. We didn’t even know what success was! We just thought, ‘This is fun! This should be the way things are supposed to go! Nothing will change. We still have to keep our jobs.’”
But the successes continued to the point that now, with their 14th Warner Music Canada album (not counting a Christmas record, live albums and compilations), Blue Rodeo’s successes are measured in terms that include induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame (2012), receiving a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award (2014) and acknowledgement that the band has steadfastly defined itself by its own terms, and in the years that ensued, sold in excess of four million records.
Those who have followed Blue Rodeo realize that the magic of the band’s sound is that co-leaders Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor are distinctly different personalities that complement each other. There are two definite songwriting voices within the band.
“Greg and I have this strange symbiosis which sometimes is contrasting and sometimes it’s marrying. We write in isolation. We don’t know what the other one is writing, but it seemed like we came with a much more energetic record this time than we have for some time,” Cuddy says.
Jim began writing his contributions to 1000 Arms a year prior to beginning to record. “Sometimes, you start a song without a clear picture of what you are writing about and it attaches itself to a story that you’re hearing. When you’re writing songs, you’re dealing with a pool of images and memories, and those memories can be very recent or very far back. We don’t look at that pool of creativity the same way we did twenty years ago.”
Greg’s method is different. “I write all the time,” he says. “It’s my hobby. I love being in that space of writing songs so I just keep writing them. For me, writing a song is repetition. I’ll sing a song a hundred times, for hours a day, just to get it right.”
The title track was inspired by a podcast Jim was listening to. “’1000 Arms’ is about a bipolar woman who had episodes where she got totally confused and didn’t know where she was. She had a coffee shop in a small San Francisco neighbourhood. She was very outgoing, dressing in colourful clothes and riding a hand-painted bike. Everybody in the community knew her. Whenever she’d have an incident, somebody would know who she was and take her back to her coffee shop. The podcast was about allowing your community to help you. When we were going over titles, we were thinking about our musical community, what it means to us and how much we would do for each other. That was what we were thinking about the most, so it seemed like an appropriate title.”
The opening track on the record, ‘Hard to Remember,’ started off as two different songs. “They were two very slow songs and I just didn’t feel like doing them that way,” recalls Greg. “We did a show in Belleville, and when I got home, I still had the ‘show head’ on from singing all night. I put the two songs together. I wanted to give them a little more zip and it worked out great.”
Greg tells a story etched in darkness in ‘Jimmy Fall Down.’ “Jimmy was one of the characters that used to hang around back in the Hi-Fi’s days (the band Greg and Jim were in prior to Blue Rodeo). The music we were involved with was a lot darker. Johnny Thunders (of the New York Dolls) was Jimmy’s hero. He had that whole vibe. Jimmy was a disaster, but he had a certain amount of charm in a derelict sort of way. I don’t know why he came up in my mind. I was writing a few lines and he sort of emerged.”
‘Rabbit’s Foot’ is a rocker, with a great guitar break supplied by Colin Cripps, and wonderful harmonies between Cuddy and Keelor. “(Co-Producer) Tim (Vesely) made a point of saying that he really loves Blue Rodeo when we’re singing together. Jim and I were both open to doing things as suggested, as often we’re not. This time, there was a very healthy collaboration. It was a lot of fun to be singing so much together.”
Cuddy takes the stuffing out of performers chasing the gigantic dream in ‘Superstar.’ “We did a bunch of gigs in L.A. about two years ago. Colin and I were riding our bikes around Beverly Hills, and even though I’ve been to L.A. a million times, I was so shocked and overwhelmed by the display of wealth. I just couldn’t believe it! The houses were so immense that I thought, ‘That’s the size of a school!’ I love L.A. I think it’s great, but it is the shallow centre of the world. I just tried to put in as many of the clichés of wanting to be part of a band.”
Jim’s turn of phrase in ‘Superstar’ includes a nod to a major songwriting influence. “That’s where I stop the mockery and want it to say, ‘A lot of good stuff came from there.’ Gram Parsons and that scene is a big part of who we are.”
‘Sleeping in the desert where they keep all the bodies hid,
Take peyote just like Jimmy did,
Make a funeral pyre and gasoline will get it lit
Say a little prayer for the souls departed.’
In the ballad, ‘Mascara Tears,’ Greg laments a loss of love, but a lesson emerges through the lyrics. “A lot of my female friends, by the fate of their lives, end up in these relationships that fuck up. They take it hard and it makes them question the deepest parts of their souls. It’s a sympathy card to a group of women that I know.”
‘Can’t Find My Own Way Back To You’ takes Jim back to New York. “Toronto is a city you can wander through but not really know what is going on. A lot is going on behind closed doors. Nothing was hidden in New York. It is great to be unknown because you can forge your own path. In our New York days, we just learned about music. Nobody cared what we did.
‘This city was everything we wanted it to be.
No one paid us any mind. That set us free.’
‘The Flame’ is an extended track that closes the album, and imagines Joan of Arc amidst tasty guitar licks from Cripps. “‘The Flame’ is about desire, and that love that just consumes you. The alchemic transformation,” suggests Keelor.
The maturity of the songs on 1000 Arms is evidence of a long, successful career that has taught the band, and its fans, a great deal. “From the beginning of the band, we never ever felt that there was an age category for whom we were writing,” Jim explains. “We felt that this type of music could encompass any age, any level of maturity, anything you wanted to say, as long as it was authentic. As long as it felt free of the conventions of other songs, we could write about anything we wanted. We have never worried about whether we’d be accepted or not.”
Although there have been line-up changes through three decades, Blue Rodeo is clearly very comfortable playing together. “In our band, it is necessary to know what you are going to do, but allow yourself to be guided a bit,” suggests Cuddy. “The guys have a pretty good instinct about what should happen in a song, but there needs to be some experimentation, trying different ways to get the best out of a song.”
The musicianship is superb with a rhythm section comprised of original band member Bazil Donovan along with drummer Glenn Milchem, keyboardist Michael Boguski adding colour, the addition of newest member Colin Cripps adding depth on guitar and vocals, and Bob Egan, whose mandolin, pedal steel and guitar added considerably to 1000 Arms. Egan, who announced he was leaving Blue Rodeo for a new position in Kitchener, will be missed by the band, but Cuddy states, “Kitchener is just down the road from us here (in Toronto), and there’s nothing to say he won’t join us from time to time.”
Reflecting back on three decades of successes and those early Blue Rodeo days, both Jim and Greg are able to fully appreciate where the band sits in the pantheon of music. “Success seemed really real when we were entertaining people in The Horseshoe. That was the top of the heap for us,” Cuddy says. “When you look back, you realize that it has just been this beautiful dream.”
Sunday, July 18
Stampede Summer Stage
New this year