I remember the first time I saw Blue Rodeo. It was in the mid 1980s at an amusement park in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. That was right after the release of the band's first album, Outskirts, which received Rolling Stone magazine's highest rating. Deemed a "classic" by that publication, Blue Rodeo was being touted as the next big thing out of Canada. I'm not sure they became the next big thing, but they certainly became one of this country's best things. Canada's population is a fraction of the US's. We have plenty of land, but not that many people. We're proud of the fact that although we can't produce the sheer number of musical groups that other countries do, we can produce musical talent known the world over.
I also remember the first time I met the group in the early 1990s. It was at a local university, and they were the headline act. It was about five minutes before their show. After having a number of beers, I figured I better visit the men's room so I wouldn't miss anything when the band began playing. Standing at the urinal for only a few moments, I heard a dozen or so feet come through the door behind me. A quick look left and then right revealed that the band had obviously consumed the same number beers and had the same idea. I was now standing beside lead singers Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy, with all the band on both sides of them. It wasn't an ideal moment to shake hands, so a quick "hello" sufficed. In all, I've seen the band play live about a dozen times, never once being disappointed. I just saw Jim Cuddy on his solo tour a few weeks ago, and that was the second time this year.
Blue Rodeo's combination of rock, pop, country, blues and jazz has spawned many well-known hits and high critical praise. Just Like a Vacation is the band's eighth collection, a two-CD live release of songs from their seven previous albums. The title is actually a line from the song "Florida" (from Diamond Mine), which closes the second disc here. In the liner notes, Greg Keelor explains that it also summarizes many years of positive experiences with the band: "I mean, think about it, writing and singing songs...who wouldn't want to do that every day?" Come to think of it, that's just how we feel about SoundStage! too!
All tracks were recorded from a tour consisting of over 60 shows. Nine of the 22 tracks come from concerts in Stratford, Ontario. The collection is particularly interesting for me because I remember the tour well, and I saw the band three times during it. The between-song banter and musical improvisations are something I remember well. What's great about this collection is that it showcases the best of what Blue Rodeo offers in terms of their songwriting and musicianship. They are one of the few bands that has absolutely no trouble playing their songs live -- perfectly replicated from the album versions if they want to. The songs that lend themselves to some improvisation are done tastefully, sometimes improving on the original, or at least offering a different twist.
All their hits are here, including the disc openers "Til I Am Myself Again," and "What Am I Doing Here" from Casino, to "Falling Down Blue" from Tremolo, to the crowd-pleasing "Five Days in May" from the Five Days in July disc. A nice addition is in the liner notes, which contain Jim Cuddy's and Greg Keelor's thoughts on each song. Despite the good selection of material, I must admit to being a bit surprised by the absence of "Rose Colored Glasses" from Outskirts. Besides being a great song, it was the band's first big hit and one of the its most popular at shows. Still, there is enough here to satisfy almost everyone. Besides, Greg Keelor's intro to "Florida," along with the audience's participation during the song, make up for almost any flaw the album could have. The disc is arranged like a concert, with the same opening songs that opening their gigs, down to the last tracks that are the encore numbers.
The recording is all live, taken from tapes from a variety of show venues, and there appears to be no overdubs. For a live popular-music recording, it's very good. Like most of Blue Rodeo's latest discs, it sounds warm and full-bodied, with good detail and correct tonal balance of all instruments. All musician's are well-delineated in the mix, with the vocals and James Gray's piano captured particularly well.
Just Like a Vacation will appeal to a wide audience. For people who casually know Blue Rodeo, it is a greatest hits collection -- their best songs and then some. For fans of the band, it will be classified as a must-own simply because it contains the live versions of well-liked songs that offer something more, or at least different. And for those like me who are very big fans who have seen the band live many times, it is a fantastic reminder of what it's like to hear this great Canadian band.
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