By Roman Mitz
Colin James has won six Juno Awards, including one for Best Blues Album for his ‘National Steel’ LP. He’s also received 20 Maple Blues Awards from the Toronto Blues Society, both for his solo offerings and the work he did with his swing outfit Colin James & The Little Big Band. With so much blues blood running through his veins, one wonders how it is possible that it wasn’t until his 2016 album ‘Blue Highways’ that Colin cracked the blues charts. That album spent 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Roots Music Report’s Blues Chart. Now that he’s arrived, however, you can bet your bottom delta dollar that he won’t be leaving anytime soon. Similar to Blue Highways, his latest album ‘Miles To Go’ features covers of blues masters like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson, but this time out he throws in a couple of bluesy originals for good measure. He’s hoping that lightning will strike twice for the second half of his blues installment. We caught up with Colin, who resides in Vancouver, sitting by the ocean channelling Otis Redding, watching the tide roll in.
“We’re having five minutes of sunlight here in Vancouver so I’m taking advantage of it,” he laughs over the line. “I’m actually sitting right at the ocean watching this super high tide.”
“I used the same approach recording Miles To Go as I did in Blue Highways, and again it’s exactly the band that I take on the road that’s on the record. We kind of set out to do two in a row and I’ve always had a tendency to over-record because sometimes what you think is going to be great isn’t as great as you thought. I find that you have to give them all a try. It’s painstaking and it can be a little disappointing because we had a bunch of finished songs for this record that for some reason or another I just finally went, ‘Nah, forget it’. Sometimes it means extra work for no gain but it’s a great process anyway. I’m just so happy to make records.”
The record begins and ends with ‘One More Mile’, a Muddy Waters song which was also covered by James Cotton. Colin’s first version, a tribute to Cotton who passed in 2017, is an up-tempo electric piece complete with a horn section, while the closer is starkly acoustic and closer to the pace of Muddy’s version.
“I was aware of Muddy Waters’ kind of gospelly version so early on I thought we would start with the acoustic one and break into the fast one,” he explains. “Then I thought it might be a neat reprise at the end of the record. The spiritual gospel trio The Sojourners came in to sing on two other songs so we thought we would try this one with them as well. You can hear it in the take that I’m a little scared of making a mistake because they’re all beside me singing. I could have been a little freer in my playing had I not been so concerned about buggering it up. It was really cool having them in the same room singing on that. It was the very last thing we did on the record and I think it worked well.”
Another stand-out cover is Colin’s slide-driven version of Blind Willie Johnson’s 1930 song ‘Soul Of A Man’. He goes back even further for Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1927 nugget ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’, and gives it a very sombre acoustic treatment augmenting his singing by solemnly rapping on the side of his guitar.
“Blues is considered narrow but if you really think about it, it’s like 360 degrees,” Colin says. “There are so many styles that I love. I’ve been a fan of John Hammond’s since I was super young. It’s his version of See That My Grave Is Kept Clean that I remember most. He did a beautiful version in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium that he put out on a live record. Bob Dylan also recorded that song in 1963 on his very first record, which is amazing to me. As far as Soul Of A Man goes, you’re never going to have it sound like Blind Willie Johnson. You might as well give up before you start because he’s got that guttural low growl.”
While Colin doesn’t have a guttural growl, he’s really grown as a vocalist. He has more or less followed in the footsteps of Eric Clapton who was first recognized for his amazing guitar work but now his singing has become an integral part of his trademark sound. Perhaps Colin’s most striking vocal on the album comes on Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Ohh Baby Hold Me’, where he just rips through the ‘whoa, whoa, whoa’s’ in the song’s chorus.
“The people I like to listen to, people like Otis Rush or Albert King, have a bit of both guitar and vocals,” he says. “I love singing so much. Although that particular song was by Howling Wolf, I grew up on the early Fleetwood Mac version from their Fleetwood Mac In Chicago album. For me, that whole record was like a dictionary of how to play and how to sing.”
Given that Colin holds artists like Fleetwood Mac and John Hammond in such high regard, one wonders if he ever feels any hesitation in covering material that for him represent such defining moments as he was growing up. Does he ever feel that his covers might not be doing justice to the songs that he’s grown to love?
“I’m more worried that I’m going to run out of songs to cover,” he laughs. “After the Little Big Band Records, National Steel plus the two new records, I’ve really mined a lot of my favourite stuff. I guess you find out that there’s always someone you didn’t listen to as much as the others and you have these renaissance moments later on. I guess there are lots to be discovered there but I’m excited about getting on to whatever’s coming next and I think I’ll probably stay away from as many covers on the next one. For now, I’m enjoying the moment because it’s been a really nice journey for us after all of these years to get something out there that’s getting noticed south of the border and over in Europe. It’s still a struggle to get over there and make it work financially but it’s becoming a little more possible now.” With respect to musical influences, one of his earliest was as an eight-year-old when his mother took him to a Regina pizza parlour where he sat six feet away from blues legends Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee as they performed a show. It wasn’t too long after that when Colin received his first guitar and that first axe plays a prominent role in the making of Miles To Go.
“When I was about 16 and I realized I wasn’t going to make it through school, someone said to me that he had a beautiful Gibson ES-335 guitar and that I should have it. They didn’t charge me what it was worth because they were, you know, supporters. When I was 16 and opened up in Regina for George Thorogood I used that guitar. When I opened up for John Lee Hooker I also used that guitar. I loved that guitar and it had a super heavy pine box case which it didn’t need to have but I never changed it. I eventually traded it for some crappy Stratocaster and I regretted it ever since. Often at the start of a record, I’ll try to find something that drives the project to get you excited about it, so I went back and found my childhood guitar. It’s brand new but it’s fantastic.”
Colin’s two original songs on the album, ‘I Will Remain’ and the first single ’40 Light Years’, more than hold their own alongside the standards. The latter track reminds one of J.J. Cale’s delivery while the intro of I Remain recalls B.B. King’s ‘The Thrill Is Gone’.
Listen to 40 Light Years
“Yeah, I Remain has that kind of pattern with a sharp 5/5 turnaround,” Colin begins. “That’s just a very common blues pattern. I thought of the song when I saw this video of Billy Gibbons playing some street musician’s guitar. He walked by a guy in Santa Monica and grabbed his guitar and played it a little bit and it was really cool because the guy was blown away. The over-riding thought that came from this was that I needed a nice minor blues that I haven’t heard a billion times so that was the impetus for the song.”
“I’m a big J.J. Cale fan and a big Mark Knopfler fan and the more you listen to Mark the more you know how much he loves J.J.’s playing. We kind of set off for that kind of vibe on 40 Light Years, with a cleaner guitar than I usually play for a change, because it’s really a little more overdriven.”
Given the time of year, it’s only fitting that we end the interview with a seasonal question; what is Colin’s favourite Christmas record? We would have thought it would have been something like Clarence Carter’s ‘Back Door Santa’ or Freddie King’s ‘Christmas Teas’, but his answer is a bit of a surprise and doesn’t go back nearly as far in time.
“I really love Leon Redbone’s ‘Christmas Island’,” he says. “He did it with Dr. John and it’s just so good. I also like listening to a little Celtic music around Christmas.”
Colin will be heading out on his cross-Canada Miles To Go tour in early 2019 so check him out when he brings his bag of blues to your town. https://www.colinjames.com/tour/
He’ll also be hoping to repeat as the winner of the Music Express Award for Top Blues Performer, as voted by our readers.
Other roots stuff:
Paul Brandt has released a new EP, ‘The Journey BNA: Vol. 2’. This is the second six-song collection to be released in 2018 and is the companion to The Journey YYC: Vol. 1 released in April. Paul says “These EP’s are reflections of my career journey, my life journey, and the intersections between both. Reflections on over 20 years of travel from that YYC Calgary airport to Nashville’s Berry Field BNA were a catalyst for some of the spirit of this project. Calgary and Nashville are the only places I’ve ever called ‘home’, and those two cities bookend my journey in life so far.”
Canadian R&B/pop singer Sandra Bouza has a lot to offer through her music and life experience.
On her introductory EP, ‘Three Years’, the Toronto native who has lived, studied or worked all over the world, lets her stories breathe in songs that are deeply personal. The richly spun ‘Where Have You Been?’ — written when she was in the throes of addiction — is about reaching out for a higher power when feeling abandoned, and the R&B number ‘I Want You’ is about the worrying pull of her relationship to booze. “I thought I had to give up music, but when I reached sobriety I got this offer to work in this beautiful country full-time doing music and that’s where I did a lot of my healing,” says Sandra of the three years she spent in Morocco, starting in 2015. “It was a gift, and then to be able to come back to Toronto and work on these songs and recordings, that was a gift too.”
The rich musical legacy of Stompin’ Tom Connors continues to grow with the release of ‘Unreleased Songs From The Vault Collection Volume 3’. The Canadian musical icon passed with 120 recordings in what he referred to as ‘The Vault’, in order to safeguard against the possibility that he should at some point find himself unable to continue in the studio. The 14 new tracks from this collection feature special guest artists The Sheepdogs, CCMA Award-winners The Washboard Union, fiddle virtuosos Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy, and The Good Lovelies.