Blue Rodeo - Outskirts - Amazon.com Music

2020 Album Draft- Round 4- Pick 9- Dave A Sound Day selects- Blue Rodeo- Outskirts.

Dave- A Sound Day’s blog can be found at-https://soundday.wordpress.com/

Well, last time out I reviewed one of rock’s all-time best-known and best-loved albums, The Beatles Sgt. Pepper… This time around, I’m going for something a little more obscure. Then again, it would be hard to find something less obscure! Is it country? Is it rock? Is it bluegrass? Today I pick an album which arrived 20 years after the last one I reviewed: Blue Rodeo ‘s amazing 1987 debut, Outskirts.

Now, I’m guessing most readers – my American friends, and ones down under, in Europe and almost anywhere else – are saying “Who? What’s that? Huh?” Canadians though are probably saying “Oh yeah! I haven’t listened to that in years! Let me go get my copy and blow the dust off it!”. Because while all but unknown outside of the Great White North, at home they’ve scratched their way into being a cultural institution and are as much a part of the Canadian mosaic as Canada geese and Maple Leafs hockey jerseys.

An overview for the non-Canucks. If the Beatles revolved around Lennon & McCartney and the Eagles centred on Henley and Frey; Blue Rodeo is essentially the long- standing project of two friends, Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor. The pair were school buddies back in the ’70s in Toronto, and formed a band not long out of school. They were the Hifis, for what it’s worth, and at the time were chasing trends and chasing their star all the way to the lights of Broadway. A short spell in New York City didn’t pan out well and soon they were back in Ontario, forming a new band with a new attitude – Blue Rodeo. Enter bassist Bazil Donovan and you have the foundation of one of the land’s best-loved bands, then and now. For the first album, jazzy, freestyle keyboardist Bob Wiseman and drummer Cleave Anderson were in the band as well, though neither ended up being in for the long haul.

They played music that wasn’t quite like most of the other bands in Toronto bars were playing back in the mid-’80s and built up a loyal following before a branch of Warner Brothers signed them around ’86. The resulting first album is brilliant in its music and bold in its against-the-grain approach.

People love to categorize and put music into neat little boxes for genre. Disco. Punk. Rock. Country. Jazz…and on and on. The trouble is, some things don’t fit any of these boxes. Or they check off too many of the boxes. Blue Rodeo, especially back then, were one of these categorization dilemmas. Their twangy guitars and lyrics about losers seemed country-ish but they didn’t sound like Reba McEntyre or Garth Brooks. They kind of rocked, but they were worlds away from Bon Jovi or Def Leppard. Such things can keep a band from finding its niche and derail a career before it gets going, and it could have been that way for Blue Rodeo. Thankfully, there was one hometown radio station which had a “what the hell, if it’s good we’ll spin it, attitude.”

If CFNY back then was known for being on the cutting edge of British imports and North America’s biggest booster of Echo & the Bunnymen, the Stranglers and Simple Minds, it didn’t mind throwing in Springsteen, Prince or Johnny Cash as well. Music author and radio executive Alan Cross was the overnight DJ on the station back in the late-’80s. “Staff were surprised at the quality,” he told me recently, “yes, it had a country feel, but the palette of sounds in alt-rock was much, much more broad back then. We had no trouble playing it.

Indeed they didn’t, and after it caught on there, other Toronto stations took a chance on it too. Then ones in Montreal, Winnipeg, Vancouver… soon the album was all over the airwaves from Atlantic to Pacific. And deservedly so.

The album showcased the Odd Couple pairing of Cuddy and Keelor exceptionally well. Cuddy says of Keelor “his musicality is so different than mine.His is so messy, mine is so neat…we push and pull each other a lot.” Left to their own devices, Keelor would have probably turned out a volume-turned-to-11 retro rockabilly affair. Cuddy, a suave Bryan Ferry-in-blue-jeans type record. Together they created their own sound, which we first heard on Outskirts.

The album is ten songs which all fit together nicely as a showcase of what would come to be called “Americana” music; if they now sometimes get compared to Steve Earle, it’s not a surprise. Jim recently mentioned Earle as being someone they listened to when making the record. He mentioned Spandau Ballet in the same clip, suggesting the listener was in for something different! You have Greg’s bold, throaty voice and his matching Gretsch guitar playing off Jim’s sweeter pop voice and rhythm guitars topped with a more than competent rhythm section and Bobby’s seemingly ad-libbed organ and accordion riffs, all balanced on some of the finest melodies this side of Liverpool. Ten songs singing the praises of the losers who keep on keeping on, those on “the outskirts of life” where “dreams seldom come true.”

From the quick-building acapella intro which builds into the foot-stomping “Heart Like Mine” through the great rockers like “Rose-coloured Glasses” and “5 Will Get You 6” to the wonderful balladry of “Rebel” and “Try” to the semi-hypnotic “Piranha Pool” with its jam band sound (not an accident; they recorded several different versions of Wiseman’s keyboard riffing and actually used a different one on the remixed re-release of the record a few years back) the songs take you into their world for a visit and make you appreciate all the colors not in a rainbow.

Although it took awhile, the album hit the Canaidian top 20 and gave them a top 40 hit in “Rose-coloured Glasses”… and “Try.” Oh yes, that lovely ballad alone would have been enough to earn them a spot in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame if they’d quit after this album – which thankfully they didn’t! The song topped country charts but also was a smash on radio from the metal stations to the quiet-sounds-at-work channels. Outskirts went quadruple platinum in Canada, which would be about the norm for them early on. Their first five albums all went multi-platinum. Back at CFNY, it ended up being the #10 album of the year, wedged between Echo & the Bunnymen and Pink Floyd! How’s that for variety.

For me, it took a few listens on the radio before I could reconcile to my ’80s-brain “hey, this is country but it’s also amazing!” I soon bought the CD and it quickly became one of my favorites for years. When I lost my collection about ten years back (a story for another day) it was one of the first I was sure to re-purchase. I became a regular at their shows, and while they are a great band to see at a large ampitheatre on a summer’s evening, they were flat out the best bar band I’ve ever seen back in the Outskirts days. And I saw them in many a bar, beer in hand, no doubt singing along with the few hundred others in attendance. I also had the pleasure of meeting them a time or two (I was even in a private album release party for one of their albums) and have to say that, yes, Jim and Greg are as nice and down to earth as they seem in interviews.

There’s something universal about them and their music it seems, at least to us Canadians. Both my parents loved music, but their tastes seldom overlapped and even less frequently did they coincide with mine. But at different times, my late Mom phoned me to tell me “I was just watching ‘your’ Blue Rodeo on TV. I like them!” and my Dad once was changing channels when I was visiting him when we came across Jim and Greg in some interview clip. He stopped there, telling me “those are those Blue Rodeo guys. Let’s watch this.”

They’ve put out over a dozen more albums since, and their next two after this one, Diamond Mine and Casino , are also outstanding (it made which one to pick a bit of a challenge) but for those wanting some “real”, organic music to add to their day, Outskirts is probably a good place to begin.

Is it country? Is it rock? Is it bluegrass? Yes, yes and yes, but mainly it’s “damn fine music.”


  1. I’m liking Joker’s Wild. They seem to have avoided that overly “80’s sound” with the production. For some reason it makes me think of Los Lobos. Maybe because that’s another band from the era that can’t be placed in a tidy catagory. Thanks for sharing this.

    • thanks Introgroove! Yes, I think Los Losbos is a reasonable comparison for the rootsy sound that isn’t quite a fit for any typical genre (and of course with them you have the touch of Latin or Mexican influence as well.) They don’t sound too dated to me, I know I once read an interview with Greg who said (not too long ago) he loved the way the album sounded still except the drums which use a bit of gated reverb- the phil collins effect – although it doesn’t jump out at me when listening.

  2. I had heard of them before but never actually heard them- listened to this album the other night- and enjoyed it! Thanks for introducing me to a new band.

  3. A beautiful and thoughtful write-up Dave. I was not familiar with Blue Rodeo, but from the two tracks you included, I really like their music. I love when artists & bands blend different genres and styles into their sound, something that’s become more common today. I hear this in a lot of indie artists & bands whose music I review.

    • thanks for your compliments! Although they were (still are I think) signed through WB, in many ways they really seemed an indie band in spirit. Sort of like Wilco too, not always in sound but in spirit and the DIY approach.

  4. Very insightful writeup Dave. I’ve listened to them after you blogged about them in the past. A lot of different styles going into them. A lot of influences that work together well. As Introgroove said they seem to have avoided that heavy 80s production….the variety continues.

    • thank you! Yep, this round of the event’s introduced all of us to at least one or two new artists I think. Like I commented to Introgroove, the production was pretty simple and similar to their live sound back then, although Keelor did think the drum sound was a bit over-produced… on some tracks there’s that “gated reverb” though it’s a lot more subtle than say Collins’ “In the Air tonight.”

    • Glad they did! Like you point out too, the completists may take note Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor have both put out solo records along the way, and while not as good as the group efforts (to me at least) they are worth a listen too. I think they kind of continue in the country-folk tradition of Canada set by The Band and Gordon Lightfoot that came before.

    • There are some real gems on the solo albums. BR are the real deal. Have you listened to any of their country cousins, ‘Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’? I have a friend who spins music out of NY and he loves all this stuff were talking about.

  5. Dave I’m one of those south of the borders who knows and loves Blue Rodeo. Way back, before computers were used to communicate, snail mail pen pals existed. I met one of my pen pals through an animal rights magazine ad that lived — and still lives — in Ottawa, Ontario area. Another thing that existed before the digital wasteland of now was cassette mix tapes. My pen pal sent me a mix tape of Blue Rodeo music and I’ve been a fan ever since. You did an excellent write-up here (which goes without saying) and yes, their music is hard to shove into a genre box. My favorite kind of music is unboxed. Excellent choice for the draft. This is one of my favorites of theirs (among many) :

    • thanks Lisa! glad they’re not entirely unknown in the US… I think they did have pockets of minor popularity in some cities, especially border ones like Detroit and Buffalo where locals might hear some Canadian radio. Hadn’t heard “Last to Know” for awhile… one of many strong tracks they put out in the first decade at least (from time to time I still hear relatively new ones from them, and most sound good if not ground-breaking, but keeping up on their entire discography hasn’t been in my budget.)

  6. I’m struggling to figure out if I have ever known of Blue Rodeo. Somehow I have missed out on them, I think. But I like both of those songs on hearing them for probably the first time, and I very much like it that their music doesn’t fit neatly in any category.

    • yes, it’s sort of refreshing to have music that isn’t cookie-cutter or doesn’t sound like it was made to fit some record company exec’s idea about what would sell best this quarter. Thanks for reading!

  7. Count me among the ignorant folks. I had never heard of Blue Rodeo, but they sound mighty good to me, based on the first three tunes on this album. And you’re right, at the end of the day, there’s only two types of music – music you dig and music you’re not particularly fond of. So who cares about labels people try to stick on it! And, of course, it’s all pretty subjective. And that’s totally fine as well!

    • Thanks Christian. And you’re not ignorant (at least not in the derisive use of the word),not many outside of Canada have heard them, which is a shame. You’re right about the types of music, in fact one of my friends is an aging radio DJ who will play virtually anything. His motto has been “there’s only two kinds of music: good and bad.”

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