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How Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor found inspiration from one of the final Tragically Hip concerts

Greg Keelor: Singer, songwriter, guitarist and co-founding member of one of Canada’s most iconic bands, Blue Rodeo.

Warner Music/Warner Music

On his meditative new solo EP, Last Winter, Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor offers Gord’s Tune. He describes it as a “love letter” to the late Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, but Keelor uses a plural personal pronoun at one point. “Many a mile from where we came,” he sings, “but each man endures.”

Gord’s Tune, an impression of one of the final Tragically Hip concerts, was recorded in 2016. In 2017, an extended Blue Rodeo tour left Keelor an emotional and physical wreck. “It’s pretty tortuous for me,” says the 63-year-old singer-songwriter, who suffers from inner-ear issues. “My brain turns against me and it gets very neurotic. It’s not pleasant at all.”

Following the Blue Rodeo tour, a damaged Keelor and friends recorded the rest of Last Winter. The experience was therapeutic for the musician, who spoke to The Globe and Mail from his farmhouse outside Toronto, where the four-song EP was recorded.

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Last Winter was never meant to be a record. After I saw the Tragically Hip at Air Canada Centre in 2016, I was gobsmacked a bit. I love the Hip. They’re wonderful guys, and I’ve known them forever. So, it was a very emotional show, on so many different levels.

Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo performs during Fire Aid concert for Fort McMurray in Edmonton, Alta.

AMBER BRACKEN/THE CANADIAN PRESS

After the show, the song Gord’s Tune just sort of started. Some of my songs come from a very deep place. And it’s the place I love to be the most.

I never meant Gord’s Tune to be put on a record. I just wanted to send it to him. After I wrote it, I called guitarist Jimmy Bowskill, who is a neighbour of mine. I asked him to put together a band and come over, because I had this song I wanted to send to Gord.

We set up in my living room and recorded it off the floor. It’s funny sometimes, how the river of song just opens up. I gave Gord a CD of the song at Massey Hall, when he sang with Blue Rodeo there. It really was just a love letter. It was nice to take it out of the flow of the music business, you know?

Blue Rodeo are pictured in their Toronto studio.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

I had written another song before the Blue Rodeo tour: City is a Symphony. It was a trail of bread crumbs. I knew the tour was going to have an effect on me, and I knew I wanted to get back to the spot I was in before I went on tour.

After the tour I was a mess. Don’t get me wrong – I love singing Blue Rodeo songs, and the audience can sing along. It’s a wonderful thing. But the touring takes a pound of flesh to do it. I had that song to come back to, though, so I called up Jimmy Bowskill and his friends again to record the song and two others.

I didn’t get any feedback from Gord on Gord’s Tune. I wasn’t really expecting any. I don’t think he was in that mode.

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Gord had a phrase, that ‘I just want to stay in orbit.’ He just wanted to stay inspired. That’s an important thing. You just want to stay as close to the flame as you can. To stay in orbit – I would like to do that, too.

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