Jim Cuddy hears the music. I see the grotty stairwell. Standing in the open doorway amid the stacks of cardboard boxes and equipment cases, he slaps his palms together and cocks his head for the echo that stretches thin above us. His face breaks into that same wide, dreamy grin he wears on stage every night. "If you go to the Motown studios in Detroit, they have a hole cut in the ceiling, all the way up to the roof," he says. "Clap your hands and you get that sound, the same one that's on all those Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder records. This is our version."
The tour continues. There's the closet with the great reverb. The back room with the flea market couch, the coffee maker and just the right ambiance for vocals. The warm and cluttered main recording space, panelled in weathered boards salvaged from an old Ontario barn, its ceiling draped with those colourful sheets of East Indian fabric that college kids pin to their dorm walls. In the centre of the room, Greg Keelor is twiddling with the buttons and knobs of a mixing board that's about the same size and vintage as a Gremlin. After a few seconds, the studio is filled with the hard-driving Memphis soul and fat string arrangements of Blue Rodeo's latest record.
There's a thin line between lush and bloated, pushing your limits and being self-indulgent. Cuddy and Keelor, the double helix of one of Canada's most enduring and successful pop acts, are well aware of the danger. What once took five days in July has taken more than five months in Blue Rodeo's new studio just off Toronto's Danforth Avenue. Freed from the financial imperatives of rented recording time, they've been busy tinkering with the formula that propelled them for almost 20 years, and 10 albums. "Wherever we were with the last studio record [2000's The Days In Between], we were done with that," says Cuddy, who has settled onto another old sofa, sandalled feet propped up on a coffee table that's littered with empty water bottles, a Visa gold card and two big chunks of hash, to listen to the playback. "We needed to attempt something we weren't certain we could accomplish." Keelor, in the band uniform of jeans and a pearl-button shirt, balances on a worn kitchen chair, jiggling his legs in time with his own guitar work. "We've gone looking for stuff," he drawls. "Having your own studio gives you time to go into the centre of what's going on."
The 14 new tracks, seven by Cuddy, seven by Keelor - "contract rules" they joke - are still being mixed, the background vocals and final overdubs not yet added, but the 10-piece string section and four-part horn section have come and gone. And though it's not a radical Pat-Boone-sings-heavy-metal-type departure, the sound has changed. The Stax records that Cuddy and Keelor have been listening to lately are in there. So is the big band "comeback era" Elvis, and even a little of Phil Spector's famous wall. The six band members are pleased with the results, but there's no hiding Cuddy and Keelor's apprehension. Fans and critics aren't always kind to late-career experimentations, and "strings" is a word that often goes with "syrupy." "It's a big deal for us, an orchestrated record," Cuddy says of the as yet untitled disc, due out in mid-September. The ever-present smile momentarily fades. "We were really worried that we'd f--- it up."
It's one of those nights that reminds you living by a lake isn't always pleasant. Windy, damp and chillingly cold, more like mid-October than mid-June. More than 14,000 people are huddled in the Molson Amphitheatre on Toronto's waterfront, waiting for Blue Rodeo to take the stage. The big, late spring hometown show is a tradition for the band - they've been doing it, in one form or another, for over a decade. The crowd it attracts is kind of hard to peg: a jumble of soccer moms, young couples, parents with baby strollers and aging Queen Street hipsters reliving their glory days. Fealty to the fruits of Keelor and Cuddy's long partnership is what they all have in common.
In the studio, Keelor, who is fast approaching his 48th birthday, was joking about how things have changed since the band's 1986 debut, Outskirts. "I go to the gas station and the guy that cleans the windows says, 'Hey, you're the guy from Blue Rodeo! My folks really like your music!' " He laughs. Cuddy, who's a boyish 46, chimes in: "The fans are getting old, but they're still good-looking, that's all that matters."
To tell the truth, Blue Rodeo has never had much teen appeal. Their blend of country, rock and pop, which crosses almost every radio format but has no natural home, has remained constant through the years. It is evolving public tastes that have transformed the band from alternative darlings to CanCon stalwarts, bestowing star status almost by stealth. Today, Blue Rodeo is one of those rare bands whose songs you know even if you don't own a record. Reliable purveyors of the kind of heartfelt music that keeps you company on long drives or seeps out of cottage windows on summer nights. Huge in Canada, virtually unknown elsewhere. Content with the way it's all turned out.
"In the States we play bars the size of [Toronto's] Horseshoe or the Rivoli, and we can pretty much sell them out now. And that's really good for us," Keelor starts earnestly, trailing off into laughter at the realization of how lame an accomplishment that is for a band that will probably sell at least 100,000 copies of the new record here at home. "I guess it just doesn't seem as relevant anymore. Only a certain type of music makes it in America - that high-gloss corporate rock isn't as essential here."
This fall and winter, Blue Rodeo will tour the same way it always has, playing the big cities and the smaller communities where most bands can't even be bothered to stop the bus. "We really have played everywhere," says Cuddy, "and ultimately I think that has a very positive effect on people." He puts on a Down East accent. " 'You came to Ba-t'urst! You came to my town,' " he shouts. "That's what they remember. They sort of feel comfortable because there's not much of a moat between them and us."
There is a particularly friendly and laid-back atmosphere in evidence this cold June night. When Keelor steps into the spotlight just after 9 p.m. to open the set with an a cappella version of Home, a track off his 1997 solo album, he's wearing the same tattered jeans and black-and-green plaid stoner jacket as when he arrived from his farm, near Peterborough, Ont., earlier in the afternoon. There's a single smoke machine to add the requisite rock star touch, but the only real accoutrement on stage is a worn Persian carpet, borrowed from the studio.
The string and horn players quietly take their place for the fourth song, the first of the eight new tracks the band will debut this night. The best received is Walk Like You Don't Mind, a soul number with a driving beat. Bassist Bazil Donovan and drummer Glenn Milchem power along as Cuddy croons, his face upturned, smooth tenor gliding out over the seats and lawn. Keelor hits the guitar solo like a skier attacking a mogul run, knees together, mouth wide open, body bent into the force of the music. The horns swing, the strings sting, until the song closes with a crashing crescendo. The crowd responds with hearty cheers; Cuddy and Keelor exchange grins across the stage. Still, predictably enough, it all pales beside the singalong adulation for favourites like Try, Diamond Mine and Hasn't Hit Me Yet - songs the band recorded a decade ago.
In the comfy confines of their studio, we've talked about where all of this is heading. Blue Rodeo has already released a "Greatest Hits" package. Most of the band members have side and solo projects. There have been plenty of allusions in the past to creative tension between the ebullient Cuddy and his more mercurial partner. In Stage Door, one of the new songs, Keelor raises the question himself: "Down the alley and through the stage door,/Sometimes I wonder, just what I, what I do it for?" So, where does it end? "I think it will be pretty obvious," says Keelor. "You know, people are still buying the records, people are still going to the shows, we're still enjoying it." Both say life is providing more than enough experiences and emotions to capture in song. "I think we got into this musical style because it offered us choices," says Cuddy. "It's a long corridor, you can walk along it for a long way."
As the lights dim after the final encore, an extended, rambling jam of Lost Together, the cheers and applause break over the stage in waves, tugging and pulling at the musicians as they take their leave. Sweating and waving, the members of Blue Rodeo walk back into the hugs and handshakes of family and friends. Cuddy is grinning like a maniac. Keelor is practically giddy. Maybe there are a couple more crowd pleasers on the new album. Maybe it can all go on forever.
Maclean's July 15, 2002