Colin James is famous for his hits, but his true legacy is his diverse and insightful musical appreciation. Anyone can be a carpenter banging away with a hammer, but it takes a special master to learn the behaviours and characteristic of each piece of wood, and that is the sort of craftsman James is, working with songs.
It’s been that way from his career’s genesis. His first radio traction was a peppy tune called Mighty Mighty Man on the vinyl LP Coast To Coast II produced by CBC Records in 1987, if you can find that. That song announced the Saskatchewan blues-rocker like a bell across the country, fresh and cocky, but it was actually a cover of a 1947 recording by Roy Brown accompanied by the Earl Barnes Orchestra.
Sure, a year later came James’ eponymous debut album and the roof got blown off the Canadian rock house with juicy jams like Voodoo Thang; Five Long Years; Why’d You Lie; Chicks, Cars and the Third World War; and others. Then the whole world took notice in 1990 when Sudden Stop was more like a sudden start when he hit the American charts on the strength of Just Came Back (To Say Goodbye) and Keep On Loving Me Baby.
That latter song was just like the other hits to his credit, to that point: thick with drums, growling with brass, and painted brightly with volcanic guitar. But like Mighty Mighty Man, it was a cover of a lesser-known golden-age blues gem, this time an Otis Rush song recorded in 1958.
Do you know who else is associated with that song? Rush’s fellow Chicago-style blues-rocker Buddy Guy (perhaps the last remaining star of that second generation of blues masters). When James – now a wise and resilient veteran of the music industry – got his wheels turning again after the pandemic lockdowns, guess who fuelled his touring fires?
“The first time we went back on the road after the pandemic was opening up for Buddy Guy,” Colin James told Black Press this week, as he is about to embark on a tour of central B.C. “That was nice, to be able to get back out and get my hands working again and do like 19 shows in a row. So that was really great and that started off the post-pandemic getting back to the doing what we do. From the people who do lights and sound to venue staff, everybody, it all ground to a halt. That’s unprecedented. So this feels great.”
James said the musicians of the world were rusty, as the global restrictions were eased, and so too were all the sound technicians, lighting specialists, stage crews, everyone who makes a concert event happen. He’s not pumping out a rock record, riught out of the COVID gates, nor is he rolling out another Colin James & the Little Big Band album. Those are epic productions. Instead, he is lythly steering Highways 16 and 97 with only two other acclaimed musicians at his side – multi-instrumental players Steve Marriner (a Juno Award and Maple Blues Award winner with MonkeyJunk, plus other collaborations) and Chris Caddell (from acclaimed band The Wreckage, solo projects, other collaborations). It’s a stripped down tour for times of reawakening.
James said, “I started doing these more scaled down shows a few years ago because they were great for teaching me how to be a little less…” his voice trailing off. “You know when you’re in a rock ‘n’ roll setting all your life, you don’t have to talk that much. This teaches you how to sit and talk about a song, put it in a different context, and we still play our electric guitars and bass – we don’t have a drummer – and still try to cover off the greatest hits that lend themselves to that kind of arrangememt, and it’s a lot of fun. I have to play more finger-picking stuff, so my fingers get another kind of workout they don’t get with the electric blues format. It’s a whole different thing and I love it. It keeps your hands dexterious.”
The album he’s just released is tailor made for this compact blues-based presentation. Open Road is named for its free-spirited flow, and it’s capitalizing on the blues vein he’s tapping into. All the veins in his past have pumped with the blues, but so many different versions. This one – lighter, smoother, rootsier – has put him on the map south of the border like no other time in his career.
“We’re having a kind of reinvention in the States,” he said. “These last few blues records have kind of reignited my career down here, for me. It still takes work. I still have to play rooms that aren’t full, and some rooms that are. It’s good for me because it takes me out of my comfort zone, and I got nominated for my first American Blues Award this year, so we’re going to Memphis for that, and I’m opening for Los Lobos during Memphis In May music festival), so we’re starting to see a little uptick in interest down here. At this time of my life, that’s interesting, it’s going into a whole new situation.”
For an artist who was on the rock charts, in the States, and has never really had a lull in his production, it’s edifying for his fans to see that someone who has been a big-band leader, an acoustic soloist, a thundering rocker, an applauded songwriter, an appreciated song interpreter – just about anything someone can do and still call it blues – to know he is still coming up with fresh momentum.
It does beg the question, though, why has mega-stardom not puffed him into a celebrity? He’s a household name in Canada, and he probably gets tapped for autographs on a regular basis around his Vancouver home. But he’s not harassed due to stardom. Why?
“You pose an interesting point, and for me, it’s a really hard industry, so you’ve just got to be grateful for what you’ve got, and for how it’s gone,” he said. “Because a lot of people don’t survive after a record. I’ve been able to make 20 and although things can always go better, I’ve had a chance to play music all my life. I know what you’re saying, and back when I was signed to an American record label and I had a song that got to No. 4 on the Rock charts down here, my life could have changed in an instant, and I don’t know if I’d have wanted it, necessarily, because fo all the scrutiny. I’ve had a nice mix of being able to do my own thing, and a level of fame that I’m comfortable with.”
It’s the level of fame that’s underpinned by 19 Juno Award nominations overall, winning eight of them, along with 27 Maple Blues Awards.
His Open Road winds through:
– Prince George (Feb. 11 at Vanier Hall, tickets available on James’ website under the Tour tab),
– Smithers (Feb. 13 at the Della Herman Theatre, tickets available at Mountain Eagle Books),
– Terrace (Feb. 14 at the REM Lee Theatre, tickets available at Misty River Books),
– Prince Rupert (Feb. 15 at the Lester Centre, tickets available online at James’ website),
– Quesnel (Feb. 17 at the Quesnel Seniors’ Centre, tickets available at Circle S Western Wear) and
– Williams Lake (Feb. 18 at the Gibraltar Room, tickets available at City Furniture).