TORONTO – Coming off Blue Rodeo’s most recent tour, co-frontman Greg Keelor thought he was nearing the end of the road.
After years of struggling with progressive hearing loss, he found this run of nearly 30 nationwide shows too much to handle. His ability to tolerate high-pitched sounds was worsening and he was “quite defensive and insular” around his band mates.
“This time I didn’t handle it,” the 63-year-old musician says, ahead of the release of “Last Winter,” a solo album of four songs due Friday.
“Often I’ll get a little out of sorts, but this one, I didn’t know how to talk as (myself).”
Keelor says his inner-ear problems were getting worse, which made it difficult being around volume at all. Past attempts by bandmate Jim Cuddy to swap out stage amplifiers for ear monitors wasn’t helping as much as it used to.
He compares the feeling to the same head pressure many people experience while flying — but far worse.
“I was destroyed,” he added. “My head becomes my enemy. It just gets a little poisoned.”
A number of rock musicians have faced similar hearing loss in recent years, including Neil Young, Eric Clapton and most recently Huey Lewis, who bowed out of his 2018 tour dates earlier this month after being diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, an inner ear disorder.
When the Blue Rodeo tour finished, Keelor retreated to his home near Peterborough, Ont. and focused on recovery. For a while he wondered if he’d even make another album.
“I couldn’t play music, couldn’t play guitar, couldn’t sing,” he said. “I turned on myself. It sort of becomes existential. I can’t trust my brain or what I perceive.”
But like many career musicians, Keelor didn’t last long without picking up his guitar. He started playing a chord that grew into the first song.
“Last Winter,” which Keelor describes as “aural wallpaper,” carries the melancholic tone. Each song is a mellow reflection on life, with three tracks ruminating on mortality in some way.
“Gord’s Tune” pays homage to the Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie who died of brain cancer last October. Keelor watched one of their final Toronto shows from a hallway backstage where he wouldn’t damage his hearing.
“It was a confusing thing because it was so great, but at the same time it was so sad,” he said.
“Gord wore the mantle of it so beautifully.”
Another track, “City is a Symphony,” hovers around the sentiment of loss as observed by Keelor in a Montreal hotel room around Christmastime.
“All around me these people were going through serious medical problems or dying,” he says.
“My generation is moving towards death.”
Keelor says he isn’t scared of mortality, but often finds himself overwhelmed by the experiences of his friends and family, some who have faced their own health problems.
For his part, he’s still trying to adapt to the changes of his own life.
Whenever he visits the busy streets of downtown Toronto he must wear earplugs to protect hearing. He’s also been forced to turn off other sounds he once loved.
“I haven’t listened to the car radio in five years,” he contends.
“I live in a very silent world, and I don’t really listen to music casually too much — not like I used to.”
He pauses before adding: “Losing the car radio was a challenge.”
Keelor hopes to continue performing with Blue Rodeo, but says the band is scaling back the number of concerts they play. Right now, the goal is to perform about 30 shows a year. He’s unsure if he’ll perform his new solo album for audiences.
“I couldn’t wear earplugs, I would want to be able to hear everything,” he said.
“I’m just worried about damaging my ears more.”
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