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Spotlight: Colin James Open Road Tour is at the Jubillee on Oct. 2. Tickets through Ticketmaster
Colin James picked up a few handy tips from Buddy Guy during a U.S. tour in March on which James accompanied the American blues legend – and not necessarily pointers on chord progressions or vocal variations.
Along with a well-known and proven knack for performing music, audience interaction is what the senior bluesman does so well. And James, a Canadian blues legend in his own right, was all eyes and ears, lapping up Guy’s velvety talk in a host of venues, stretching from Rochester, N.Y., to L.A., with many stops in between.
“And if you watch Buddy Guy on any given night, there’s a fair amount of talking,” says James, who will be in Calgary at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium on Oct. 2. “Someone who’s been doing it all his life, and it was quite fascinating.”
James and Guy are no strangers, first sharing the stage early in James’s career, in the mid-to late-1980s.
“I’ve known Buddy for years, but to do 19 shows in a row where you’ve really gotten the chance to see differences in the show, or one night when he was inspired he would do this or that a little differently. That was a lot of fun,” he says. “Our bands got along great, our crews got along great. We really had a riot playing.”
And given the fact the James act has been playing some shows as a trio, prepping for more intimate audience settings will surely pay dividends.
“I’ve done a whack of (full band shows) where you can just come out (with) sheer volume and bulldoze your way through a set. Which I love … don’t get me wrong,” says James, who’s been doing the trimmed-down trio thing on and off for the past decade, and recalls an early standout gig at Toronto’s famed Massey Hall. “That spooked me.
“Thank God a couple of friends showed up that night. It sort of calmed my nerves. But it taught me how to talk a little more and it does actually lend itself to my other shows because I find I’m not scared of doing that.”
Gigs with Guy were a boon to James for many reasons. For instance, they afforded the glorious opportunity to get back on the road following a long pandemic-prompted break and, perhaps most importantly, James was able to get back into touring without his name topping the marquee. The pressure was off a tad, but James was aware this also meant he might have to prove himself to some when the troupe touched down in somewhat unfamiliar terrain.
“You’re piggybacking on (Guy’s) audience,” James says. “I knew some people there would have never heard of me, for some there may be a vague recollection. I really had to kind of turn them over in a 45-minute set.”
That isn’t so much the case on the tour to support his album Open Road, where the spotlight has been fixed on the multi-award-winning and multi-platinum-selling artist. Armed with material from 20 studio albums, several recognizable singles (Voodoo Thing and Just Came Back are standouts) and a reputation that’s paved the way for collaborations both on stage and in the studio with a who’s who of the music world (Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Winwood and Long John Baldry to name a few), James is delighted to return to what is surely one of his natural habitats.
“Oh man, words can’t really describe … It was so great to be standing up with a guitar,” he says. “In the daytime when you’re on the road and in and out of a hotel, then you’re going to sound check, you’re on your feet all day and you’re moving, you’re moving, you’re moving. Then you do a show, then you do it all over again.
“I can’t tell you just how great it was to get back on stage and play and play to people who had often not seen a band (for some time due to the pandemic).”
James and his band were on the U.S. leg of a tour when COVID hit, so the less-populated studio was a natural venue to help keep the cobwebs away. Compounding the COVID challenge, which dictated that Open Road would be made during a “time when connecting with others was difficult,” was the fact co-producer Dave Meszaros was working in England at the time.
“That created a whole series of issues where if we started at 11 o’clock my time, which is usually my go-to start time, it’s already 8 o’clock at night where he is,” James says. “So, we had to kind of piecemeal it, get this time here, that time there.”
Time differences aside, tapping into technology allowed for solid teamwork, enabling Meszaros to be right there putting his touch on everything, albeit virtually. The co-producer would “take over” James’s computer, “using my mouse,” employing an app that supplied the same “left to right” sound in real time.
“It was flawless,” James says. This also meant the musician had to take over engineering duties from time to time, not at the top of James’s likes-to-do list.
“(Meszaros would) leave me with something to do, so I’d engineer my own whole session, or I’d engineer my own vocal session,” he says. “When we could do it together we did, but when we couldn’t … One thing I’m not great at is if I do seven takes of a vocal and I have to edit between them, it’s not my favourite thing.”
The bottom line was the fact that such state-of-the-art technology was available to make what would have been impossible not long before very possible.
James appears humbled and appreciative.
“(This was) something you could never have done until a year ago,” he says. “I’m literally walking around my studio with an iPad and he’s looking at my mics, where they are on the cone of the speaker, going, ‘Could you move that one toward the speaker a little bit?’ Hilarious. Anyway, it works.”
But the seasoned studio veteran, who, no doubt, fiddled with a much different array of switches and levers when he recorded his 1988 self-titled debut, maintains the personal touch. In other words, everyone hovering cheek by jowl over the control board is his recording method of choice.
“The bottom line is, you can’t beat working at something together because you don’t miss anything,” James says. “You can get into the minutiae… I missed that. But, there you go. We got through it and now, let’s move ahead.”
Progressing also means racking up more national kudos. Album No. 20 – Open Road – won James his 28th and 29th Maple Blues Awards for male vocalist and the electronic act of the year, and upped his Juno hardware count to seven after it was named blues album of the year.
Despite his impressive numbers, such recognition does “not get old.”
“Nobody at heart loves something becoming a competition, but it’s great to focus energy on the Canadian music business, which has led so much on the world stage,” says James. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
And there’s nothing wrong with the niche the Regina-born and internationally acclaimed rock and blues singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer and much-in-demand collaborator has carved out for himself. At 58, and still extremely active in the business, James could be christened with many handles, including elder statesman in the Canadian music industry. But never a nostalgia act.
“You don’t have to fall into that (nostalgia) category if you don’t want to,” James says. “There are things you can do with your career to avoid it, and I like to think I’ve done that.
Which doesn’t necessarily mean ducking the oldies but goodies and signature songs on stage.
“You can’t stop the fact that people have a romantic image of the songs they first discovered you with. There’s nothing wrong with playing to that, but your heart has to be in it. If you’re going through the motions, then maybe it’s not time to do that.”