A Long, Cold Winter, An Angry Drummer & Blue Rodeo

It was the winter of ’90-’91. I was living in Brandon, Manitoba, on the frozen Canadian plains. It was a miserably cold winter, much like most Manitoba winters. I was laid-off from my job at a chemical plant, living in a house with four friends, subsisting on 7-11 chili-cheese nachos, Big Bite hotdogs and the slimiest hamburgers you’ve ever eaten; whiling away the hours reading RollingStone magazine, listening to music and banging out songs on my newly acquired acoustic guitar.

To say there were few bright spots that winter would be an understatement. Other than escaping into a world of rock and roll and doing my best to stay warm, which was hard given the fact that I had to walk to the 7-11 (even though the 7-11 was only a block and a half away — a block and a half in -35 weather might as well have been ten miles, especially given my penchant for running shoes and a light jacket), it was an uneventful period. As the days crawled along, one dark and cold twenty-four stretch after another, and as my spirit and creativity were slowly drained, a call came that would briefly shine a light into the darkness.

“How would you like to work the Blue Rodeo concert at the University on the weekend?” The caller, a former co-worker, asked.

I’d heard of Blue Rodeo, was familiar with their big hit “Try” from a few years earlier, but I knew very little about them. I wasn’t a fan, but the opportunity to get out of the house and do something, anything music related, not to mention earn a few well-needed dollars with which to feed my chili-cheese nacho and RollingStone addictions, was appealing. I jumped at the offer.

The day arrived for the concert. Me and one of my guitar playing buddies got up early and loaded ourselves into my former co-worker’s van and headed for the theatre. It was a cold day, but thankfully the weather had broken enough that we weren’t completely freezing our asses off. Toques, gloves, heavy coats, these things weren’t in the wardrobe of young men in their early twenties. (We were far too cool to dress warm, which in hindsight makes me laugh. These days at the first sign of cold, I’m bundled up tighter than an Eskimo.)

The load-in was uneventful, and all I could think about was getting all the gear inside and unthawing. Blue Rodeo’s crew treated us kindly and instructed us where each road case needed to go. Used to dealing with locals in every town, the crew expertly guided us in the stage set up. Me and my guitar playing buddy were each paired off with a crew member, who we then shadowed for the rest of the morning. The experience was not only fun, it was eye-opening. I was surprised at how much goes into setting up a concert.

It appeared Blue Rodeo was far more successful than I’d thought. The band had a tour bus, something few Canadian acts had at the time. Most Canadian bands in the old days crisscrossed the country in tiny vans, pulling small trailers packed with gear. Blue Rodeo had a bus and a big truck to haul their gear. As impressed as I was with the band’s set up, I still blew them off as a pseudo Canadian folk-country band with only one hit (that I knew of), a ballad that was kind of syrupy for a rock and roll dude like myself.

I remember standing next to the monitor mixing station, which was set up on the left side of the stage, talking to my guitar playing buddy, who was about as interested in Blue Rodeo as I was, when a guy popped out of nowhere playing a Gibson ES335. We had no idea who he was. He talked in a whiny voice, sniffling like he had a cold. He plucked on the guitar, which wasn’t plugged in. My buddy turned to me and said, “who is this guy, he can’t even play?” I shrugged. Later that night we found out who he was, it was Bobby Wiseman, then an integral part of Blue Rodeo. A keyboard player by trade, it turned out he could also play the guitar, very well.

After set up, we were told to go home for a few hours and be back an hour before show time. We piled back into my former co-worker’s van and headed for the 7-11 to load up on chili cheese nachos and Big Bites, then it was home to devour our healthy meal and to take a nap (hey, the music business is exhausting, especially when you’re the one doing all the heavy lifting). During my rest, I thought about Blue Rodeo. They were living the kind of life the bands I read about in RollingStone were living. And they were Canadian! Not that Canadian bands had never made it big, but this was a band I hardly knew anything about, and I prided myself on my musical knowledge.

Back at the theatre, an hour before show-time, me and my guitar playing buddy were assigned the task of backstage security, which meant we could hang around and watch the show from the side of the stage as long as we kept one eye on the doors that lead to front of house. I found myself a road case and got comfortable. The number of people filing into the venue surprised me. The place didn’t sell out, but there was a near capacity crowd. And something tells me had the temperature not dipped considerably in the evening, the show might very well have sold out.

Before Blue Rodeo took the stage, opening act the Skydiggers warmed the crowd up with their folk sounds. At first I was skeptical of this ragtag group of musicians when they burst through the back doors of the venue shortly before their set. The guys looked more like college students than they did a band. The group’s singer, Andy, was the only one who came over and chatted briefly. The rest of the band floated around backstage as they chattered loudly and cleaned up the crumbs from the catering table. Turns out they were good.

Intermission came, and us local roadies were again instructed to watch the backstage doors. While I guarded the doors on stage left, the Skydiggers drummer came to the loading dock and began tearing his equipment down. Intrigued, I approached him to enquire as to why he would be breaking his own equipment down (I didn’t know much about the music business), and to offer him a helping hand. “I didn’t realize opening bands have to break their own equipment down,” I said in an attempt to start up a conversation. “Yeah,” he barked at me wild-eyed, “we wipe our own asses and do our own laundry, too!”

The guy’s response shocked me. I didn’t know what to say. He kept on tearing his gear down and ignored me. I quietly moved closer to the front of house doors and pondered this outburst. My tone was friendly. I hadn’t said anything rude, or at least I didn’t think so. Just then, my guitar playing buddy (yes, he does have a name, and no, I’m not telling you) came rolling around the corner. Relieved of his duties watching the front of house doors on stage right, my buddy was sent to assist me. I told him about the altercation (if that’s what it was) with the drummer.

My buddy looked over in the direction of the drummer, who was now crankily loading his gear out the back door and into the band’s van. “F*** him,” my buddy said. “It’s not like he’s in the Eagles or anything.” Big Eagles fans, we both nodded in agreement and moved on to more pressing matters. Like how we were going to get our band together and conquer the world. Hell, if Blue Rodeo could do it, we surely could. Turns out it’s not as easy as it looks (but that’s a completely different story).

By the time Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy, the co-founders and co-lead vocalists and songwriters of Blue Rodeo, followed bassist Basil Donovan, the aforementioned Bobby Wiseman and drummer Mark French out on stage, I was just waiting for the show to be over so we could tear down, load the gear out, get paid and go home. Only two songs in, I was rocking along with the crowd. Turned out the boys were more than a simple folk-country band, they were a rock and roll band. Sure they twanged, but they rocked the house.

Touring behind their then new album Casino, a disc that was produced by Dwight Yoakam guitarist Pete Anderson, the band tore up the theatre floorboards in Brandon. I was completely blown away by songs like “Til I Am Myself Again,” “Trust Yourself” and “After The Rain,” from Casino, but it was songs like “Joker’s Wild” and “Diamond Mine,” from the band’s first two albums, Outskirts and Diamond Mine respectively, that knocked me on my ass. Who were these guys?

Hearing Jim Cuddy sing was an inspiring experience, the guy is one of the best singers – Canadian or otherwise – to ever set foot in a recording studio or on a stage. As for Greg Keelor, his gritty guitar and raw voice charged me up. While not blessed with the same vocal prowess as Cuddy, Keelor’s from-the-gut delivery added a well needed dynamic to the Blue Rodeo sound. Then there was the songwriting; these guys were writing monster jams and radio hits that somehow blended together perfectly. After the show, I was shell-shocked, converted, a Blue Rodeo fan for life.

I don’t have many good memories from that winter, but the Blue Rodeo concert is a bright spot in what was a bleak stretch in my life. Every now and then, I’ll pull out my favourite Blue Rodeo album, close my eyes and be transported back more than twenty five years to one of the most inspiring concerts I’ve ever witnessed.