When Blue Rodeo played the MTS Centre last January, the Canadian country-rock institution was celebrating a milestone. Outskirts, the band's 1987 debut, was turning 25 that year -- and what better way to celebrate almost three decades of tireless touring than with another trip down the Trans-Canada?
But those shows weren't just about nostalgia for Jim Cuddy, Greg Keelor and company, they were also a chance to road-test the new material that would make up 2013's In Our Nature -- a stripped-down, contemplative record with an acoustic heart, recorded at Keelor's farmhouse in the same spirit as 1993's acclaimed Five Days in July.
And so, on a cold Thursday night, Blue Rodeo and 3,500 of their closest friends got together for a mellow, laid-back evening of music.
The hour-long first set was pulled almost entirely from In Our Nature, save for a loose-limbed cover of the the Rolling Stones' The Last Time. Live, the new tunes were warm and rich. Right from set opener New Morning Sun, one was immediately struck by the quality of the vocal performances, a silver-lining result of the band switching to inner-ear monitors because of Keelor's hearing damage. Keelor might not be able to play electric guitar anymore -- and he looked a little naked when he took to the mic to simply sing, as on Paradise --but the man can still sing. And guitar slinger Colin Cripps (Junkhouse) is just the man to pick up the slack.
The interplay between Keelor and Cuddy -- CanRock's Lennon and McCartney -- was typically gorgeous, especially on the heart-rending ballad Tara's Blues, led by Keelor. Both frontmen were in fine form on their own, too; earlier in the set, Cuddy sat down at the piano and absolutely wowed with the stunning Made Up Your Mind.
The second half of the show, meanwhile, combed Blue Rodeo's estimable back catalogue, leading off with an arena-worthy rendition of 1989's Diamond Mine that included a massive keyboard solo courtesy of Mike Boguski, another recent recruit. That was just the first of many crowd-pleasers, including Til I Am Myself Again, Disappear and the summery Head Over Heels, which earned the band a small congregation of dancers -- dreaming of Folk Fest no doubt -- in front of the stage. Cuddy returned to the piano to show off his vocal chops on the eternally romantic After the Rain.
The walk down memory lane was paved with more favourites, including Girl of Mine, Rose Coloured Glasses, Bad Timing and a jammy, solo-filled Five Days in May that allowed each band member to have a turn in the spotlight.
A hush fell over the room when Keelor allowed the audience to take the lead for the first few verses of Hasn't Hit Me Yet, one of the night's many highlights.
Try -- another Cuddy Valentine -- and a full-band, beers-in-the-air singalong (with opening act The Devin Cuddy Band) of Lost Together made for a euphoric encore. Those who stuck around were treated to an acoustic duo performance of What Am I Doing Here? by Blue Rodeo's frontmen.
Eschewing the arena rock treatment for a more Spartan stage setup, Blue Rodeo placed the focus squarely on the music. In fact, it was hard not to feel like the band was dwarfed by its surroundings -- especially during a threadbare performance of Dark Angel. Overall, the show would have been better suited to a more intimate room. Still, to the band's credit, they filled the half bowl with crystal-clear sound -- even if they weren't quite able to fill it with bodies.
Jim's son Devin -- and the Devin Cuddy Band -- will doubtless enjoy a higher profile after this run of shows. The younger Cuddy -- who, fun fact, was born the same week his pa began recording Outskirts -- served up a whiskey-soaked set of Southern-fried tunes straight out of the Mississippi delta. Cuddy's loose, languid drawl sounds best when he's singing the blues, as on the slinky, sexy set closer Catfish Blues. Word is the band was planning on playing a midnight set at the Times Change(d).