When Blue Rodeo rolled through town last January, the Canadian country-rock institution was on a cross-country 25th anniversary tour commemorating the release of 1987's landmark Outskirts.
But chief songwriters Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor weren't just looking in the rear-view mirror at a storied career in rock 'n' roll; they were also road-testing material for their 13th studio album, In Our Nature.
"A lot (of the record) was written on the road," Keelor told the Free Press last month. "There's something about touring; the band is finely tuned. You get an understanding of that reciprocal thing that happens with an audience. You instinctively know what's working and what's not working. My songs are conversational; they're written for people. I think a lot of these songs will be fun to sing live."
Blue Rodeo is taking In Our Nature on a national tour that stops in at the MTS Centre on Thursday night for the second time in under a year. Released in October, the new album finds the band's distinctive singer/songwriters -- Keelor's salty to Cuddy's sweet -- in a contemplative state. These songs are soft-spoken, mostly acoustic ruminations on life, death and what's next.
"I reflect a lot on my own life," Keelor says. "There's a lot of darkness in life, friends passing away. All the little tragedies that happen every day in life. Sometimes those things catch my attention more than the happy events. I'm drawn to melancholy; it takes us out of the day-to-day shopping life we live."
Of course, it's not all about him. The twangy slow-burner Tara's Blues, with its heartache laid bare -- "someone new/is holding you/the way I used to" -- was written for a friend that had gone through a recent breakup.
"They had been together for a long time and she was devastated, so I wrote her a song," he says. It didn't go over so well.
"When I sang it for her, it was terrible. It was like, 'Here's a sad person, let's make it worse,'" he said with a laugh. "So I wrote Wondering. That's more a consoling sort of song. Songs of sadness and consolation are what I write."
Like 1993's acclaimed Five Days in July, released almost exactly 20 years prior, In Our Nature was recorded at Keelor's farmhouse in southern Ontario. While the new album has the same rough-hewn warmth and community vibe that made Five Days in July a classic, recording at the farmhouse was actually a function of allowing Keelor to record in an environment engineered for especially for him.
As a result of his years on stage, Keelor suffers from a painful sensitivity to loud noise. He can no longer play the electric guitar, and recording in a traditional studio environment is difficult.
"It's like a prosthesis," Keelor says of his studio. "It's an easier way for me to make music with other people."
The rest of the band has had to adjust its live show to accommodate Keelor's hearing, switching to in-ear monitors and offstage amps. Keelor wears earplugs and has a monitor in front of him. This way, he can remain onstage for the whole show.
"It was pretty weird at first," he acknowledges. "You rely on the volume for that endorphin thing. And, for the band, it was a hard transition."
Still, after a shaky start, Keelor says Blue Rodeo is playing as well as it ever has. "The crash and boom is out of the band," he says. "There's a little more finesse."
For his part, Keelor mourned his electric guitar -- "we had a little ceremony," he joked -- but now, he says, it's all good. "I'm quite happy to strum my guitar and sing."
There are also a few more members among the band's ranks to flesh out the sound. Guitarist/singer Colin Cripps, who was brought in to fill in Keelor's electric guitar parts at the first sign of hearing damage, is now a full-time member, joining the core trio of Cuddy, Keelor and bassist Bazil Donovan along with newer additions keyboardist Mike Boguski and drummer Glenn Milchem.
Twenty-six years in, and Blue Rodeo is writing a new chapter.
"We have new players bringing fresh blood into the band," Keelor says. "And it feels really good."