You may recall I wrote last week about Blue Rodeo, the great Toronto roots-rock band that often plays to modest club crowds in the United States but enjoys nationwide stardom in Canada. Their relative anonymity in the U.S. aside, Blue Rodeo’s story is mostly a happy one, a tale of dreams pursued and fulfilled, and it continues to unfold even today.
Would that this were the case for another, similarly named fellow Canadian roots act, the Blue Shadows. Whereas there’s a fair chance you’ve at least heard of Blue Rodeo (and maybe are a big fan, if last week’s comments were any indication!), it’s almost a certainty that you never heard of the Blue Shadows if you live in the U.S., and you might not even know of them if you’re from Canada. Though they issued two albums in the mid-’90s, neither of them ever got released in the States. The best of the two, 1993’s On The Floor Of Heaven, finally is seeing the light of day again (including a Stateside release this time) as a reissue on Bumstead Records this week. The reissue includes a second disc of outtakes from the album’s sessions.
The Blue Shadows weren’t quite just another of Canada’s pleasant and plentiful roots-rock acts. They had an ace in the hole in Billy Cowsill, a transplanted Rhode Islander who’d hit it big as a teen in the late 1960s with the family band the Cowsills (the real-life basis for TV’s fictional Partridge Family). Cowsill was an obvious personality, a real musical talent with a rare keening vocal twang that made him equally adept at taking the lead melody or handling the high harmony. He was also a troubled soul, with substance abuse problems that ultimately broke the band up before its time and contributed to his death in 2006 at age 58 (though he’d cleaned up his act in his later years).
Really, though, it was like the Blue Shadows had TWO aces in the hole. Cowsill may have had a larger-than-life aspect to his character, but his partner in singing and songwriting, Winnipeg native Jeffrey Hatcher, was a supremely talented tunesmith in his own right (with several previous projects to his credit before the Blue Shadows made their ’90s run). And there was something magical about the way Hatcher and Cowsill’s voices blended. The closest comparison is to the Everly Brothers, though their partnership at times seemed to have a Lennon/McCartney feel to it as well.
That I became aware of them was just a stroke of dumb luck. I was visiting a friend in Calgary (the band’s home base) in the summer of ‘93 and we stopped in at a local bar, where it just so happened that the Blue Shadows were performing. I knew nothing about them at the time, but it took only a couple of songs for me to realize they were something really special. I bought On The Floor Of Heaven (which had just come out) on the spot, reviewed it for a Seattle biweekly a few days later, and watched as the Shadows went….nowhere.
Cowsill’s volatility probably doomed their chances, really; so much about a band’s prospects for success depends not just on having worthy art, but also on striking the right balance of personal chemistry and responsibility. And yet I’ve continued to go back to these guys’ music over the years. I can’t seem to leave them behind, and so it’s gratifying to see On The Floor Of Heaven finally resurface. Just to give you a little bit of a sense of their music, here’s a video for the song “Deliver Me” that was shot back in the band’s heyday: