"It was like having a major musical stroke."
This is how Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy describes the adjustment to his songwriting partner Greg Keelor's hearing problem which became a serious issue for the band a few years ago.
After a quarter-century with the group, his work - and a genetic predisposition - finally caught up with Keelor. A painful sensitivity to loud noise made it impossible for him to play the electric guitar both on stage and off.
"It was just sort of my fate and yes it was hard adjusting but now I love it and I don't why music is so loud and I don't know what the whole world is so loud. Take it easy!" says Keelor, 59, seated beside Cuddy, 57.
"And it was hard at first for me too because you're not getting the jolt of volume, the volume is sort of like an endorphin. For all of us, for the first little while, it was like playing with your pants down at your ankles. This is weird. You feel very exposed."
The short-term solution during Blue Rodeo's 2011 tour was to have Keelor walk off the stage during the louder electric songs.
"It just reached the point where we wondered what was going to happen," says Cuddy. "We couldn't do that anymore. It was misrepresenting Blue Rodeo."
But more recently during the group's 2013 trek, the band resorted to in-ear monitors. As well, Colin Cripps filled in on those electric guitar parts and has now joined the group - rounded out by bassist Bazil Donovan, drummer Glenn Milchem, pedal steel-mandolin player Bob Egan and keyboardist Mike Boguski - as its official seventh member for the band's latest album, In Our Nature, in stores Tuesday. (Cripps has played with Cuddy in his solo career for 15 years and replaced Keelor in Crash Vegas before that.)
We caught up with Blue Rodeo's songwriting duo before the group embarks on a January to March tour of Canada during which they plan to perform In Our Nature, which features a cover of The Band's Out Of The Blue, in its entirety, followed by their hits.
Q: Has the problem of playing live with Greg been fully worked out?
Jim: All the amps are off stage, everybody's on in-ears (monitors), except for Greg. He has this little monitor in front of him. And then we relearned how to play with each other. There was a lot of growing pains. It was difficult to reconnect with each other. It was difficult to play with the same amount of energy as we'd played with before 'cause the results were so diminished just getting it in-ears. ... And then the benefits started revealing themselves. Obviously for singing. ... Singing is so much easier, so much better.
Greg: I'm in my Tommy Hunter phase now.
Q: You recorded In Our Nature at Greg's place in the country in southern Ontario near Orono. Was that because of his hearing issues?
Greg: I knew it would be hard for me to go to the Woodshed, our studio here (in Toronto), and contribute to the record the way I wanted to contribute ... So at my place I had made a few records and done some recording of people and I'd figured out a way that I could play, sing, and record with people, and it didn't hurt my ears. And that was a big part of it. The house is like a musical wheel chair.
Q: Did you have any hesistancy to do that Jim?
Jim: I had a little hesitation because I didn't know the engineer, I didn't know James McKenty. And I recognized, to be perfectly honest, that when I went to Greg's, I'd be not very much in control. Not the alpha male. I'm a beta male that acts like an alpha male.
Greg: I'm a gamma male.
Jim: But it was totally the right thing to do and once it became apparent that it was the totally right thing to do then it was really, really enjoyable.
Q: Was it comfortable for everyone?
Greg: It's nice to get away from the city. And then we had a good cook. And soon as they got there, there were always nice snacks. Kate Boothman, she's amazing. And we had a big communal table out on the porch.
Jim: We actually have a cook book coming out with the new record. She's really an extraordinary cook. I think it's called Sing For Your Supper.
Q: Jim, your son Devin, will be opening on the national tour, with the Devin Cuddy Band. Is that a hard spot to put him in?
Jim: I think Devin has done a lot to make sure he's independent. Not relied on us for anything but I think that as we search for bands, knowing that we would do a long set, we need a band that would do something short, and Devin's name belonged on the list. And they're a band that can impress in a very short period of time and I think it'll be good for him.
Select Canadian tour dates:
JAN. 10-11 CALGARY: Southern Alberta Jubilee Aud.
JAN. 17-18 EDMONTON: Northern Alberta Jubilee Aud
JAN. 23 WINNIPEG: MTS Centre
FEB. 14 OTTAWA: Canadian Tire Centre
FEB. 19-20 TORONTO: Massey Hall