LEWISTON – Were the five hawks circling overhead an omen? Well, the black storm clouds sure were of the deluge to come, rolling in from the west. A man appeared on stage warning that rain was coming, that anyone “worried for their safety should head to their cars.” Someone yelled, “Umbrellas up!”
Largely, the Artpark crowd stayed put, buffeted by a storm of great fury for about fifteen minutes. The stagehands, armed with leaf blowers and squeegees, dried the stage. Soaked, the enthralled fans greeted the alternative-country band with a thunderous ovation.
With nearly three decades of song-crafting, recording and touring under their collective belts, this is indeed not the stellar Canadian Blue Rodeo’s first rodeo. Singer/guitarist Jim Cuddy shouted, “Thank you very much for enduring the rain!”
Blue Rodeo features some new players but still has at its core the divine tenor vocals of lyrical partnership Cuddy and Greg Keelor, and Bazil Donovan’s interpretive bass lines. Added into this original mix is the multi-instrumental talent of former Wilco and Freakwater band member Bob Egan (who makes his pedal steel guitar sing), Glenn Milchem on drums, and James Gray and Michael Bogulski on keyboards.
Here is a crash course in alt-country, or roots rock: It’s rock that embraces the dusty, lovelorn aspects of country music in its lyrics and melody without committing fully to the cowboy hat and boots. It’s rock with ear-jangling country additions of pedal steel, ukulele and harmonica. It’s music that rocks but doesn’t flatten your eyebrows with hardcore decibels.
Blue Rodeo began their set with a powerful version of their “Head Over Heels,” before launching into “Cynthia,” with lyrics about “the fire in the sky.” It was on to “How Long,” with gorgeous harmonizing by Cuddy and Keelor before an introduction to “What Am I Doing Here,” with a recollection about the band playing at the Erie County Fair and the band distractedly watching the Ferris wheel off in the distance.
“Diamond Mine, with near-psychedelic wailing piano and drums brought Cuddy to the edge of the stage to screams of delight. Blue Rodeo announced their next studio release, to appear in October of this year, and the new “Never Too Late” which fits in snugly to the band’s oeuvre with harmonizing poeticism.
With Cuddy at the piano, it was a lovely “After the Rain,” that brought jubilant hollers from the soggy crowd, the song ending with his voice delivering the song’s final lines in a rollicking howl. Blue Rodeo’s cover of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” gave the classic tune some revamped country swagger. Whoever in attendance was not singing at this point joined in for “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet,” Cuddy pronouncing “Such a nice choir,” to the singing masses.
“Thank you, Buffalo, you really are beautiful,” enthused Keelor after the set’s final song “You’re Everywhere,” with its swinging refrain “Into the waves of my heart, it hasn’t hit me yet.” Their sing-along encore included “ ’Til I Am Myself Again,” and a dedication “for Mary, our longtime friend in Buffalo,” a soulful, organ-rich “Try.”
Opener Matt Andersen, of Nova Scotia, “an easterner,” according to Kim from Hamilton, a long-running Blue Rodeo fan, played a perfect hourlong set of Delta Blues, tossing his hair emphatically. He won over the crowd with his songs about love – gone wrong, going home to his lady, and about a woman who “should be the devil’s bride,” his closer. Soaked not from the pending rain, but from his own hard blues work, he noted that he’d be on hand at the merch table to give hugs. “I’ll change my shirt for you,” he wryly added.