By Keith Sharp
Colin James’ 2015 `Hearts On Fire’ tour was winding down, he was enjoying playing with a band that featured Geoff Hicks (drums), Steve Pelletier (bass), Jesse O’Brien (piano) and his Odds’ buddy Craig Northey (rhythm guitar), he felt they had evolved into a really tight unit and conceived of the idea of taking them into a studio to knock off a record while they were still in the groove. But what to record?
“We were sitting around a restaurant table one night on tour and I probably came up with the idea of recording an album of blues covers,” explained James over the phone from Vancouver. “We were having so much fun together, I wanted us to go into the studio but I didn’t have any original material set to go.
So compiling a list of his favourite blues tracks, James hearded his band into Bryan Adams’ Vancouver Warehouse Studios and knocked off a bunch of tracks in a hectic, two-day marathon; the best 13 tracks now released on ‘Blue Highways’, James’ 18th record release.
“I have lists for every kind of music you can image, so we selected about 30 songs and at the end of the two days we were pretty burned out,” reflected the Regina native. “Occasionally, we’d cut tracks in the wrong key, and I’d go “Oh Man, that’s in the wrong key!, so we’d have to dump the track and the final 13 tracks are those we planned correctly. Yet those sessions were recorded the way I wanted to do it, there was so much excitement in those sessions. Sometimes the things you do at the last minute end up being the most fun.”
Co-produced by Dave Meszaros (Wake Owl, Old Man Canyon), the 13 tracks pay homage to great blues influences like Howlin Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Freddie King , Jr Wells, Buddy Guy. Peter Green and Robert Johnson and cover the full gamut of blues from Chicago Blues, Delta Blues and even British Blues in the form of ex Fleetwood Mac guitarist Peter Green.
“Tracks like “Riding The Moonlight (written by Howlin Wolf), I’ve been doing that song since I was 16, busking on street corners in Montreal and Toronto,” James allowed. ” I named my first band after the song “Hoodoo Man Blues” (written by Jr Wells) when I was 16 or 17 and “Goin Down”, the album’s first single, was a song Freddie King turned me on to even though it was writted by Don Nix who performed in the same Mar-Keys group as did Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper.
James had toyed with inserting one original song to make the track list a little more modern and heavy sounding, “Then I said No, No, Stop it already, let’s keep the record traditional”.
An added bonus was the inclusion of harp instrumentals by MonkeyJunk’s Steve Marriner who will be joining James’ band when they execute a 21-date Canadian national theatre tour in February and March 2017. “Steve couldn’t be in the studio during the sessions so he recorded his bits from a studio in Toronto,” James explained. “He obviously really listened to the tracks and he made some great contributions, I was so pleased when I got the tape back and heard what he had recorded.”
Aware that Blue Highways is a traditional blues record, James decided it needed a more specialized niche marketing strategy than what Universal Records (his previous label) could provide so he initially opted to fund the record himself and later leased the release to True North Records for independant distribution.
“It’s something I did before with my `National Steel’ record when I couldn’t get anyone to release it,” James explained. “From day one, I’ve always wanted to play the blues but there’s always been a pushback from major labels who wanted a more blues-rock sound.
“Going back to my first 1988 self-titled) record, when I was recording in Miami with the legendary Tom Dowd. it was like pulling teeth getting any blues tracks on that record. In his mind. I was going down a road he had already travelled with Eric Clapton and The Cream and he wanted to lead me in a different direction.”
James couldn’t argue with the end result which spawned three major singles; “Five Long Years”, “Why’d You Lie” and “Voodoo Thing”, earning him double platinum record sales and a 1989 Juno Award as Most Promising Male Artist. Yet even when his second release for Virgin, “Sudden Stop” in 1990 featured another self-penned hit single, “Just Came Back”, James felt his musical direction was heading the wrong way. Yes he won two 1991 Juno Awards for the single and Male Vocalist Of The Year, the record also went platinum but James was personally dissatisfied so for the third album, he took a swing-jive approach with the first of two Colin James And The Little Big Band Releases
Athough he has yet to recapture the chart and sales success of those first two records, James continues, virtually every two years, to pop out records which combine blues covers, classics and his own material while touring consistantly. In his travels, James has also noticed a re-interest in blues music.
“Yes I think traditional blues is making a comeback,” he allowed. It’s great timing for me that the Rolling Stones are releasing their own traditional blues record in December `Blue And Lonesome” so that alone will put traditional blues back in the spotlght.”
As for his new relationship with True North, James couldn’t be happier. “They are getting me all kinds of airplay in the States and Europe (especially in England and Germany), I have a British tour starting in November opening for Beth Hart. I have an English agent working for me and I am hoping to get onto some of those big European blues festivals next year.
Domestically, James will be taking his regular band, plus Marriner and a small horn section across Canada in February/March playing key venues like Toronto’s Massey Hall (Feb 18th), Winnipeg’s Burton Cummings Theatre (Feb 25th) and Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre (March 8th). Opening act is transplanted Canadian Tami Neilson, who is currently huge in New Zealand
Like the Rolling Stones, James is planning to freshen up his set list every night while acknowledging that he still has to play a few key favourites for the punters. “The neat thing is that that I can dip into my catalogue to change the set list if I think certain songs are sounding a little stale, and even with proven hits like Why’d You Lie, there’s nothing that says we can’t play a re-interpretation, just to keep the band and our fans on their toes.”
For complete tour information please link to www.colinjames.com
Colin James Tour Dates:
02/06 Brockville, ON / Brockville Arts Centre
02/07 Ottawa, ON / NAC
02/10 Moncton, NB / Casino New Brunswick
02/11 Halifax, NS / Casino Nova Scotia
02/15 Montreal, QC / Theatre Maisonneuve
02/16 Belleville, ON / Empire Theatre
02/17 Peterborough, ON / Showplace Theatre
02/18 Toronto, ON / Massey Hall
02/20 Kitchener, ON / Centre in the Square
02/21 Hamilton, ON / Hamilton Place
02/22 London, ON / Centennial
02/25 Winnipeg, MB / Burton Cummings Theatre
02/26 Saskatoon, SK / TCU Place
02/27 Regina, SK / Conexus
03/01 Medicine Hat, AB / Esplanade
03/02 Edmonton, AB / Northern Jubilee
03/03 Calgary, AB / Southern Jubilee
03/04 Kelowna, BC / Community Theatre
03/06 Nanaimo, BC / The Port Theatre
Cover Photo by: James O’Mara