My blogging friend Verna wrote recently about her memories of Blue Rodeo, and how they have been the soundtrack of her life. I too have long been a fan, although my experience was a bit different, because I had the pleasure of watching them from close to the beginning of their career, when they were not the icons they have become.
You see, over two decades ago I left my prairie city and headed east, far east to "the Big Smoke" of Toronto. I left behind family and most of my friends, throwing in my lot with my-then partner and his friends, who were pursuing their own musical dreams in that city. I had never even been to Toronto, and had only dreamed of it, but one day I found myself there, a prairie girl right in the centre of one of the country's largest cities.
And I loved it. I threw myself into the city with zeal, quickly securing a job but even more quickly becoming a fixture on the burgeoning music scene on Queen Street West. It was a time when so many bands were coming up, and a time of change in the musical industry as individuals like those in Blue Rodeo began to explore the concept of crossover, of taking country music and making it more accessible to a larger audience. I was so fortunate to be there at the start of it all, and to be at the front of the stage when they played small clubs along the Queen West strip. I saw them play in places like The Rivoli and The Horseshoe Tavern, and I along with the others in front of those stages knew we were witnessing something special.
It was an interesting time to be in Toronto. There was an excitement and a vibrancy, a gathering of talents and an explosion of music. I recall so well long nights spent at The Cameron House, a place where I would find myself at a table, Black Label beer in hand, debating music, and politics, and life. I recall all those concerts and nights before a stage, so many different bands and so many different names as they all sought to find their rhythm.
There was a group of us who followed Blue Rodeo. We were more than fans and less than friends, people who went to every gig we could. We knew the songs by heart, and we knew the set list, noticing when they changed it up from show to show. We knew when they were in their moment and had found their sweet spot, and when the music was more than just music and instead something far more, a collective gathering of our hearts. There were so many special moments at the end of the night, when the band was winding down and we would disperse out onto the streets of the city, most of the city fast asleep except for us, when it seemed we had seen something less like a show and more like magic.
It doesn't take much to trigger my memory of those days. Two years ago Blue Rodeo played here on an outdoor stage, under the stars and the northern lights. I had the honour of acting as their hospitality host and as I expected they did not remember me from those Toronto days, as I was just a face in a crowded sea of those who followed them - but I remembered them. I stood that night on the scaffolding of the VIP section, transfixed as the music flowed above and around me, and I was transported back to a small club on Queen Street West, and a moment when I knew I was seeing something special unfold in front of me.
So many of the names I knew from the music scene back then have gone on to other things. Gordie Johnson, who I went to house parties with and saw play in various bands, went on to form Big Sugar. Chuck Angus, a major part of the group Grievous Angels, went on to become Charlie Angus, Member of Parliament (I am not sure any of us would have predicted that back then). Some have disappeared, too, and I often wonder where they have gone. But over the years I have run across the names of various others, including those in the group of more-than-fans and less-than-friends, and even run into them on occasion in the places they have found themselves as the journeys of our lives took their own paths.
And now, here I am in Fort McMurray, where Blue Rodeo will once again play this week. I don't know if I ever imagined myself here, all those years ago in Toronto when I stood in front of a stage, beer bottle in hand, swaying to the songs I knew so well that I could hear them whenever I shut my eyes and thought for just a moment. I don't know if I ever imagined that Blue Rodeo would be playing still, touring again as they presented a new album to people like me who had followed them for years. I don't know if I ever imagined that our paths would cross again and again over the years, every time I heard them on the radio or saw them on a stage once again. All I know is that sometimes there are ribbons that run through the fabric of your life, on occasion disappearing underneath but then resurfacing again to remind you of those moments in your past when you were part of something special. And I know that one of those moments will be on Thursday night, when Blue Rodeo takes the stage, and a magic moment will occur once more, transporting me back to over two decades ago, and a much different world.