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Colin James: Open Road
by George Graham
(Popguru Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/3/2021)
Musical fads can come and go, but there are some forms that remain timeless, and in many cases, the artists creating them get better as they progress in age. That is not something than can be said about, for example, a 1980s hair band whose members are now in the 60s or 70s. This week we have a first rate album of straight-ahead blues by a veteran Canadian artist – Canada has not exactly been known as a hotbed of the blues – that definitely has a timeless, and musically durable quality. It’s by Colin James, and his new 19th studio album is called Open Road.
Colin James Munn is a native of Regina, Saskatchewan. As a teen at a folk festival, he heard the great bluesman and harmonica player James Cotton, and immediately became a blues fan, eventually playing in regional blues bands. He was “discovered” by the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, when Colin James Munn was asked to fill in on short notice for an opening act that did not make it. Vaughan invited him to join him on tour, and advised him to drop his last name and become Colin James.
Over the years, James has toured on the folk festival circuit doing acoustic blues, and released what was essentially a big band blues album. He has collected a number of Canadian awards, including seven JUNO Awards, the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy. He has become known for his clean but soulful guitar work and similarly understated tenor vocals.
Like so many albums coming out recently, the production of Open Road was affected by the pandemic. Off the touring circuit, James did a lot of writing, and also developed arrangements for the covers that are included in this generous 13-track album. James said that they did two sessions in his home base of Vancouver, but a fair amount of the recording was done virtually, with the musicians separated by geography, with some of the added players recording in the UK. James comments in his liner notes that it was not ideal way to perform the blues, but it came together well.
The material is an interesting mix with original tunes, songs from some the blues greats such as Albert King and John Lee Hooker, some Memphis soul influence, and two Bob Dylan songs arranged for the bluesy concept. The band on this album is different from the one on his last release, 2018’s Miles to Go. The current band includes bassist Norm Fisher, drummer Geoff Hicks and keyboard man Simon Kendall. With the circumstance of the recording, Colin James played most of the guitar parts via overdubbing. But there is a guest appearance by fellow Canadian bluesman Colin Linden on one track.
Opening the album is As the Crow Flies by Tony Joe White, in the swamp rock style White was known for. Its a good example of the album’s strong but refined sound. <<>>
The album includes Can’t You See What You’re Doing to Me by Albert King, and to give it the Memphis influenced sound King was known for, James’ version features some added horns. <<>>
The first of the original tunes is the title track Open Road also drawing the so-called swamp-rock sound, with James adding an acoustic resonator guitar in addition to his very electric lead guitar. <<>>
No blues album would be complete without a slow blues or two. A track called That’s Why I’m Crying, is one such, and is given a very classy treatment. <<>>
Another original tune is Raging River, co-written by fellow Candian bluesman and producer Colin Linden, who also appears on guitar. It’s more of a story song than is common for blues, but it brings a nice change of pace. <<>>
James and company also draw on early rock & roll influence, specifically the sound of Chuck Berry for the original tune When I Leave This House providing a new take on the old blues subject of rambling. <<>>
One of the Bob Dylan songs on the album is It Takes Lot to Laugh, It’s Takes a Train to Cry. Dylan’s original version was bluesy to begin with, and Colin James’ treatment draws on the sound of the Dylan version, with the addition of some strong slide guitar work. <<>>
The album ends with another piece of Memphis soul, Eddie Floyd’s I Love You More Than Words Can Say, a tune that was co-written by Booker T. Jones. And in honor of that, there is a prominent organ part, including a solo, by Simon Kendall. <<>>
Open Road the new album from veteran Canadian bluesman Colin James is another musically solid and classy recording by the artist. The pandemic altered the recording method, with a lot of the parts recorded virtually, but it came together well. The mixture of the material is also a strong point, with the originals interspersed with old blues and soul songs, and the Bob Dylan covers. James’ guitar work is tasteful, on instruments ranging from acoustic resonator guitar to cranked-up electric. Adding another interesting point, the album was mixed at the famous Abbey Road studios in England.
Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus with a generally clean mix that balances the acoustic and electric components. The dynamic range, how the recording handles the difference between loud and soft, is rather typical of today’s volume-compressed albums, in other words not great.
Colin James is 57 years old now after starting as something of a prodigy. His new album is good example of how well the blues in its various forms remains relevant over time.
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