Jim Cuddy admits his bandmate Greg Keelor has a problem. And it’s a problem some Blue Rodeo fans have been noticing on the Toronto band’s summer tour, which has usually found the older of the two singer-guitarists walking off-stage mid-set. Rest assured, though, that Keelor’s not sneaking back to the green room for a quick bump off a supermodel’s behind. Nor, as some online reports have speculated, is he feuding with other members of the band.
“The stuff you read about why he’s leaving is so funny,” Cuddy reports. “You know, people are saying, ‘Greg’s become such a prima donna that he won’t stay on-stage unless he’s singing.’ We’ve been open about why he has to leave the stage, but people just believe what they want to believe.”
Cuddy’s certainly frank about Keelor’s condition when the Straight reaches him at his farm in Ontario’s cottage country. And its cause won’t surprise anyone who’s ever seen the guitarist stand, unencumbered by hearing protection, in front of a raging Fender Bassman amplifier. Keelor began having ear trouble in 2010, although, perhaps surprisingly, he wasn’t going deaf. Instead, he’s become painfully sensitive to louder sounds.
“He said to me once that if he dropped a plate at his place, it would affect him for three days,” Cuddy explains. “His hearing was just hypersensitive—the cilia would not lay down, so his ears were always in this kind of panic mode.”
Not a happy development for someone who used to like to keep his big orange Gretsch guitar just at the edge of feedback. In July, though, the Winnipeg Folk Festival came to the rescue, just in time for Blue Rodeo’s annual cross-country trek.
“They wanted us to do the whole of Five Days in July, start to finish,” Cuddy says, referring to the band’s 1993 album. It was mostly recorded using acoustic instruments. “We’d never done that before, but we thought, ‘This is a good opportunity, because it’s a record that Greg could actually participate in, ’cause it’s played at a volume that would be good for him.’ ”
Problem solved—and, typically, Cuddy and Keelor have found a way to turn what might have meant the end of their band into a kind of rebirth.
“It’s been a fantastic rediscovery, because that record really changed us,” Cuddy contends. “It gave us a whole bunch of other grooves. But we realized, on relistening to it, that we’d flattened out a lot of the rhythms. We’d been playing them too much on bigger stages, and we’d pushed them harder, and made them more rock songs. So we rediscovered a lot of subtleties that were actually good for the band in general, while also getting Greg back on-stage.”
And when Keelor’s resting his ears, occasional Bryan Adams sideman Colin Cripps has been filling in for him, which is not going to disappoint those looking for fiery-yet-tasteful fretwork.
As for what the future holds for Blue Rodeo, Cuddy’s more focused on getting ready to tour behind his third solo release, Skyscraper Soul, which hits the stores on September 27. But he is willing to reveal that his musical partnership with Keelor isn’t going to go away anytime soon.
“Next summer we’ll probably take a stab at making another record in the same style as Five Days in July,” he says. “We haven’t written an acoustic record for a long time, so we were probably heading in that direction anyway—and now it’s been necessitated by Greg’s ears. But that’s not a bad thing. It’s not a bad thing to pull back.”
Blue Rodeo plays Malkin Bowl on Friday and Saturday (September 9 and 10).