Blue Rodeo’s catalog is vast and filled with so many outstanding albums that it’s easy to overlook the excellent solo albums released through the years by members of the Canadian band.
A new album, Constellation, was just released by Jim Cuddy, and it’s another winner for Blue Rodeo’s co-leader, singer, songwriter and guitarist. Cuddy’s band on the album includes Blue Rodeo lead guitarist Colin Cripps and bassist Bazil Donovan, with Anne Lindsay on violin, Steve O’Connor on keyboards, and Joel Anderson on drums. Other musicians add cello, mandolin, and organ, and Oh Susanna provides backing vocals on two songs.
Cuddy, one of rock’s best singers, who has written numerous classic songs with Blue Rodeo co-leader Greg Keelor, dedicates the 11-song, country-tinged rock and pop record to his late friend Rob Gray, a Canadian production designer for film and television who died of cancer two years ago. The third track, “Constellations,” is about a night of farewell on Cuddy’s farm when he and Gray, who had just undergone a radiation treatment, ate and drank hard, went outside, and picked out a star. The chosen star would be a way to remember Gray after he died.
Cuddy tells me he wasn’t shooting for any lyrical or musical themes when he went in to record the album, “but themes of loss and the constancy of love are the ones that emerged.”
I ask him whether he sees any natural progression from his first solo album, All in Time, in 1998, to Constellation, his fourth.
“My first record was trying to establish a sound using a violin, trying to use some of my influences to create a sound.,” Cuddy responds. “The songs were scattered all over the place thematically. With this new record, having established a sound and broadening it over the years, I have been writing about contemporary subjects — things that have been going on in my life for the past 18 months. I believe that’s a function of age. There are a lot of impactful things to keep writing about.”
Constellation was recorded in Toronto at Blue Rodeo’s Woodshed studio, which has also been used by Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Cockburn, Neko Case, and Feist. Cuddy and Cripps produced the album with the studio’s manager, Tim Vesely, a founding member of the Canadian band Rheostatics.
“It was done in a similar manner to the last number of records I’ve done — mostly live off the floor, with additional instruments and singing being done after,” Cuddy says. “The Woodshed is great place to work, and I’ve never really been inspired to work elsewhere since we created it.”
Kristofferson’s name arises again when I ask Cuddy to name the best show Blue Rodeo ever played.
“That would be an impossible task,” Cuddy says. “We’ve had so many amazing experiences. However, one of the greatest experiences of my time with Blue Rodeo was when we played with Kris Kristofferson at the (Molson Canadian) Ampitheatre in Toronto. It was a very large crowd — 10,000-plus. Kris opened the show, and then he joined us onstage. During the encore, he was singing ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door,’ and then there was an instrumental break. He was smiling at me, and he leaned into my ear and said, ‘You know, Jim, sometimes the good guys win.’ I was so flattered and flabbergasted. I’ve always been a huge admirer of Kris Kristofferson. That was about as high as I could get.”
Cuddy names two concerts as the best ones he saw in recent years.
“One was Stevie Wonder at the Air Canada Centre (in Toronto in 2015) doing Songs in the Key of Life,” he says. “He was absolutely one of the most talented people I have ever seen on stage.
“The second one would be the whole evening of Hayden’s (songwriter Hayden Desser) Dream Serenade at Massey Hall (in Toronto) last year. So many artists performing beautiful acoustic numbers.”
Cuddy was one of the surprise guest stars at the Dream Serenade, an annual concert presented by Desser and his wife, Christie Greyerbiehl, to benefit children with developmental or physical disabilities and their caregivers. The show featured performances by Sloan, Sam Roberts, Skydiggers, and Hannah Georgas.
Cuddy and violinist Lindsay joined Skydiggers for a raucous, fiddle-charged version of Blue Rodeo’s anthem “5 Days in May.” Then Cuddy’s golden voice beautifully sang the love song he once told me he enjoys singing more than any other song on stage, “Try,” from Blue Rodeo’s debut album, Outskirts.