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Colin James: Miles to Go
by George Graham
(True North Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/17/2018)
Canada is not exactly known as a hotbed of the blues, which seems such an American creation, especially with its origins with African Americans from the South. But due to the proximity along the border, many American blues artists have played in Canada and a solid blues scene has developed, going back to people like Ronnie Hawkins, who organized the group that would become The Band, and has included artists like the late Jeff Healy, Tom Lavin and the Powder Blues Band, and acoustic bluesman Corey Harris.
This week we have the newest release from an artist with an over 30 year career, Colin James, whose new album, his 18th studio record, is called Miles To Go.
Colin James Munn was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, and at age 16, heard the late James Cotton at a Winnipeg folk festival, and was smitten. He eventually came to perform with regional blues bands. In 1984, when the late Stevie Ray Vaughan was booked to perform in Regina, the scheduled opening act was not available, and Colin James invited to fill in, and had only a few hours to put together a set with the band Flying Colors. Vaughan was impressed and invited Colin James to perform with him in an encore, and then to join Vaughan’s tour as a regular opening act, including in the US.
With the career boost that provided, Colin James – it was said that Stevie Ray Vaughan suggested dropping his surname Munn as a stage name – in 1988, released his debut solo album, which yielded some his singles. In 1993, James released Colin James and the Little Big Band, which preceded some of other records of the period that got into big band recordings like those of Brian Setzer. In 1997, James did an acoustic album called National Steel, and found himself on the folk festival scene for a while. But his heart was mainly in the blues, and has been renewing his commitment to the blues in recent releases. His last album, Blue Highways issued in 2016, was a collection of some of his favorite blues covers with his tasteful arrangements. Now he is out with Miles to Go, which includes a song that he heard James Cotton play back at the folk festival when he was 16, and which James now includes in two versions on the new release.
Like its predecessor, Miles to Go features a nice balance of tight, often sophisticated musicianship with a classic ingredients. There is a good cross section of blues styles from upbeat horn-laden danceable tracks to classic slow blues, to a couple of acoustic tracks. James is not a blues shouter, but conveys the spirit of the blues in a more laid-back style. His guitar work is also clean and articulate, even when the tunes supposedly get down and dirty. The backing musicians are first-rate and include a horn section on several tracks, plus the African American Gospel style vocal group the Sojourners. The band in this Vancouver-made recording includes Jesse O’Brien and Simon Kendall on keyboards, Chris Gestrin on rhythm guitar, Steve Marriner on harmonica, Steve Pelletier on bass and Geoff Hicks on drums.
The record opens with One More Mile, that song James heard harmonica man James Cotton play at that fateful folk festival. It’s a Muddy Waters composition, but James credits Cotton with the arrangement. The James version features prominent harmonica by Steve Marriner. It’s a rather typically strong, tight big blues arrangement with horns, with a dash of funk. <<>>
More down in the swamp musically is another Muddy Waters tune called Still a Fool, which has classic blues lyrics about infidelity. <<>>
James includes an old song by Arthur Crudup called Dig Myself a Hole, whose rather apocalyptic lyrics, which somehow seem relevant today, are tempered by the bouncy, rather good-time arrangement. <<>>
One of two originals by Colin James is I Will Remain, a great slow blues in the B.B. King style. The lyrics, professing devotion, are a contrast to a lot of blues lyrics. <<>>
Another original co-written by James is 40 Light Years, a nice blend of great playing and a cool groove seemingly inspired by Memphis soul. <<>>
No blues album would complete without a classic slow blues, and James includes a song called Black Night by Jesse Mae Robinson, served up in the laid back style of the album. <<>>
There are a couple of acoustic-based tracks. One is the old classic by Blind Willie Johnson, Soul of Man. James is joined by the Sojourners for the appropriately Gospel-influenced backing vocals. <<>>
James includes a solo acoustic performance on another classic folk blues song, Blind Lemon Jefferson’s See That My Grave Is Kept Clean. <<>>
Colin James’ new 18th studio album Miles to Go is another outstanding recording by a veteran Canadian bluesman who should be known better in the US. It’s a nice mix of classic styles and tunes, with first-rate musicianship and tight arrangements. For some blues fans, this might not be raw enough, and James does not pretend to be a vocalist in the mold of the Muddy Waters or Howling’ Wolf. But the music has the spirit and it’s all very well done.
Our sound quality grade is close to an “A.” Kudos to James co-producer/engineer Dave Meszaros for not trying to make the recording sound dirty like an old analog blues record, though there are a couple of instances of messing with some saturation sound on James’ vocal. But otherwise, it’s a clean and warm sounding recording.
Colin James’ new album is a great reminder of the worthwhile blues scene north of the border.
(c) Copyright 2018 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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