By Keith Sharp
Think of Colin James and you focus on the Regina native being the consummate Canadian blues artist. Someone who has won a staggering 27 Maple Blues Awards and no less than seven Juno Awards while releasing a total of 20 studio albums during his 34-year career.
So, it’s strange then that James finds himself in a position of introducing himself to a new U.S. audience when he executes a tour opening for Blues legend Buddy Guy in April of this year.
“It’s a huge challenge but it’s liberating,” James noted over the phone as he celebrated the release of his 20th album, `Open Road in November. “I have a chance to be exactly what I want to be without bringing pride into the situation. “We (his band) are just going to have to get out there and promote ourselves to a new audience.”
A relationship with Ron Kaplan, a key agent for the powerful ICM Agency with offices in the USA and Europe has provided new opportunities for James.
“I have known Ron for many years and I have always wanted him to represent me. And now that he is, I do have the opportunity to perform in front of a new audience,” James noted. “I kinda have to sell myself all over again. It’s bizarre to do that when you are in your late 50’s.”
James got a taste of performing in front of a new audience when he concluded his highly successful coast-to-coast Canadian tour in support of his Juno-award winning 2018 `Miles To Go‘ album by executing a number of high-profile U.S dates. But the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted that tour and sent him back into the recording studio to work on his latest release.
“We started our first session of writing after we hit the road but as we got deeper into the U.S, the pandemic hit and we had to stop touring,” James noted. “So I went back to the studio but the pandemic prevented me from recording the way I normally go about things. I normally hang out with fellow musicians in Nashville and Los Angeles, I like to collaborate with people but this time I had to work long-distance with my co-producer, Dave Meszaros, who works out of England. I was able to collaborate with Colin Linden, Tom Wilson and Craig Northey but there’s no substitute for the energy of everyone getting together in the same room.”
Aware that his new 13-track album will be a focal point of his upcoming U.S dates with Buddy Guy, James wanted to record something special for the launch. “I didn’t want to lose that ground for being known as a blues player but I didn’t want to repeat myself over and over again.”
‘James’ solution is to combine four original songs with key covers that included Bob Dylan’s “Down On The Bottom”, Tony Joe White’s “As The Crow Flies” and Otis Rush’s “It Takes Time”.
James, who was inducted into the 2014 Canadian Music Hall Of Fame, is set to road test the new album with a series of 11 Canadian dates (COVID-19 Restrictions allowing), launching at Kingston Grand Theatre Feb 21st and concluding March 11th at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver before heading South to join up with Buddy Guy for an extensive 17-date tour which begins March 13th at The Saban in Beverley Hills CA and wraps April 8th at the Kodak Centre in Rochester NY.
James is aware that there has been some confusion as to what type of performer he really is. From his early 1991 success when he won his first Juno in Vancouver as Top New Artist, James’ radio hit “Just Got Back” had a definite rock element to it. Bryan Adams said at that time, “That guy has talent but I don’t know what he’s doing!”.
James further confused the issue by releasing a number of `Big Band’ albums but he will admit that his dominant love has always been the blues. “People always want to stick you in a box, you look at Jeff Healey, everyone thought of him as a blues player, but it was his Jazz records which showed his great depth of talent.”
One thing James will never take for granted is his ability to perform live. “Considering I can’t rely on radio airplay anymore, one thing you think is that they will never be able to take live performing from me, but that’s what has happened during this pandemic!”