Blue Rodeo's Big Gamble

Canadian rockers put their money on 'Casino'

Blue Rodeo singers Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy continued the Toronto country rock quintet's runaway success by lashing out a string of great songs during two Friday concerts at the Ontario Place Forum, July 12th, 1988. Credit: Jeff Goode/Toronto Star via Getty

It's a chilly afternoon in Downtown Vancouver, where the two frontmen for Canada's premier rock band, Blue Rodeo, are checking out secondhand instruments in a quaint, musty store called Not Just Another Music Shop. The salt-and-pepper-haired Greg Keelor softly strums a '52 Gibson in a back room, while the boyishly handsome Jim Cuddy stares at an odd display of guitar picks mounted on the wall.

"Congratulations, you made it into the Pick Hall of Fame," says the salesman behind the counter, and Cuddy's face lights up when he spots a familiar piece among the colorful little triangles. "We traded three Sun Studios picks for one of yours," the clerk says, before adding the zinger: "Of course, we had a big stack of them Sun picks lying around...."

The barb makes Cuddy laugh, but it carries a ring of truth – Blue Rodeo's success remains somewhat limited. Although in its homeland the band has won several prestigious awards and racked up double-platinum album sales, it has yet to break big in the United States. Things could change, however, with the release of the band's third album, Casino, which easily stands as its most compelling effort yet.

Often compared to another Canadian institution, the Band, Blue Rodeo has developed a strong roots sound that draws from a charismatic mix of American pop, country and blues. There are also nods to the harmonies of the Everly Brothers and the R&B-tinged pub rock of Graham Parker and Nick Lowe. Above all, the group passionately embraces the jangling guitars and smart hooks of the Beatles, with echoes of Rubber Soul and Revolver reverberating through the new album.

"Greg and Jim are obsessed with the Beatles," says keyboardist Bobby Wiseman. Indeed, Keelor and Cuddy don't hide their love away; they admit to blasting Beatles CDs through studio speakers before they began each day of recording. "It sort of gave us a direction," says Cuddy, who also cites Neil Young's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere as inspiration.

Rock & roll wasn't always a preference. Cuddy started out playing acoustic folk music in the late Seventies before teaming with Keelor, a Toronto high-school chum, who didn't even pick up an axe until he turned 22. Together the pair formed an "amphetamine pop band" called the HiFi's, but a shift from raw three-chord punk to more complex New Wave proved traumatic. "When we stopped being the Clash and tried to become XTC, we really betrayed our weaknesses as musicians," says Keelor.

A three-year struggle to land a record deal in New York failed dismally, and in 1984 the duo returned to Toronto's flourishing club scene, where artists like K.D. Lang and the Cowboy Junkies were honing their chops. Keelor and Cuddy recruited bassman Bazil Donovan, a friend from their New Wave days, met the self-taught jazz pianist Wiseman through his older brother and found a drummer by using this demented classified ad: "If you've dropped acid twenty times, lost three or four years to booze and can still manage to keep time, call Jim or Greg."

Christening themselves with the space-cowboy moniker Blue Rodeo, the new band played the Toronto club circuit and all other available venues: They rocked out in hockey rinks, Saskatchewan cattle barns, even on patches of frozen tundra in the Arctic. "We've played between 175 and 200 shows every year since we started," says Cuddy. "That's the way we spread the word in Canada: If somebody would have us, we'd play there."

After recording a pair of critically acclaimed albums, Outskirts and Diamond Mine, Blue Rodeo amassed a legion of devoted fans and won the notice of peers such as Kris Kristofferson and Elvis Costello. The band also landed two unlikely engagements – one playing with Robbie Robertson and the Band at 1989's Juno Awards ceremonies (the Canadian equivalent of Grammy night), the other backing Meryl Streep's singing scenes in last year's movie Postcards From the Edge.

More important than those gigs was the band's work on its third album, intended to showcase tight pop songs without the lengthy keyboard solos and random guitar parts that had characterized previous projects. A new drummer, Mark French, was brought in, and the band asked Dwight Yoakam producer Pete Anderson to help sharpen its sound. Recorded for the most part at Los Angeles's Capitol Studios – where the Beach Boys cut their classic tracks and the Beatles' records were remastered – Casino captures Blue Rodeo as a unified band rather than merely pushing Cuddy and Keelor to the forefront as vocalists.

Onstage, the group's forceful dynamic is even more apparent. During a recent Canadian tour, Blue Rodeo prefaced a sold-out date at Vancouver's elegant Orpheum Theater with a show next door at the tawdry Commodore, a smaller ballroom illuminated by chandeliers and candles. As the group slipped effortlessly between uptempo rockers and slower numbers, the audience responded both emotionally and physically, making the club's wooden floor bounce like a trampoline on the more furious songs, then slow-dancing during the quiet ballads.

With such a devoted following among the maple-leaf crowd, Blue Rodeo isn't all that pressured to cross the borderline. "The question always arises if we're worried about not being popular in the States," says Keelor. "We have to keep reminding people that we've got an awfully good thing going in Canada – we constantly do cross-country tours and sell a lot of records up here. As far as I'm concerned, anything else that happens would be like winning the lottery."