OTTAWA — About 11 years ago, around 80 people crammed into the Mercury Lounge, one of New York’s smallest and most beloved clubs, to listen to this country-blues band from Canada with a psychedelic side and Wilco-esque jam panache. They rocked, we sang and it all made the little spot in the East Village a little happier that night. The show went unnoticed in the rest of Manhattan, and elsewhere too, making the words at the merchandise kiosk resonate with those of us who did attend. On mugs and bumper stickers was the slogan: “In a just world, Blue Rodeo would be as popular as toast.”
On Friday night, beneath a nearly full moon, the world and universe as those in Ottawa knew it seemed to be in perfect order. A hockey arena-sized crowd gathered on the grounds of the 2011 Ottawa Bluesfest at LeBreton Flats, behind the Canadian War Museum, for what had to be the largest and most enthusiastic audience Blue Rodeo has played in front of in recent memory. The band was more than up for the occasion, delivering an energetic show on a steamy night that also featured East Coast rapper Classified. Many of his younger fans not only stuck around for the old-timers from Blue Rodeo, they sang along to the band’s classics — including the too-sensitive-for-the-frat-house “After the Rain” — from start to finish.
It is one of the two best shows I’ve seen from Blue Rodeo (and you’re talking double digits; I have enough ticket stubs for each finger and toe, from everywhere from the deceased Bottom Line in Greenwich Village to the Orpheum in Vancouver); the other top show from them was that night at the Mercury Lounge, when then-keyboardist James Gray tore it up with some heavy-duty hammering of the keys.
At the 17th annual Bluesfest, Jim Cuddy, Greg Keelor and crew opened with “It Hasn’t Hit Me Yet.” They followed with “Five Days in May” as the setlist featured most of their greatest hits — although “Diamond Mine” and “Rose-Coloured Glasses” still don’t make it into the show often enough. Wayne Petti from Cuff the Duke, who’s practically a member of Blue Rodeo, he’s been on stage so often with them, helped out on vocals and guitars, and talented Colin Cripps, Kathleen Edwards’ husband, joined on guitar for the full show. (Edwards didn’t show up, though.)