True North Records [Release date 21.09.18]
Canadian blues-rock artist Colin James recently reflected that : “Blues is the only genre where you can maintain a young profile at the age of 53.”
And while there’s no doubting the veracity of those words, Colin James finds himself in a handy position of being able to reconnect with the blues. Aside from the legacy of his own 30 year recording career, he found deserved success with his last blues album ‘Blue Highways’.
So it probably didn’t take too much of a leap of faith to cut a second such album called ‘Miles To Go’
And if the new album further casts him in the role of an interpreter of songs, it’s a role well suited to an artist who has shifted his focus down the years from rock-blues to big band swing and national steel-into-acoustic.
Colin James has always been adventurous, flexible and innovative. You could argue his greatest success has come when he’s taken an unexpected move, and so it has proved by reconnecting with the blues.
‘Miles To Go’ is his 19th album and it sets the bar high, for with the exception of two excellent self penned songs, he aims to bring new vitality to an extant familiar catalogue of blues songs.
He does so by playing to his strengths as a vocalist of some substance and a guitarist who phrasing makes an equally significant emotional connection as his voice.
His opening brace of songs draws the listener in on the back of a funky horn-led rendition of Muddy Waters’ ‘One More Mile’, (attributed to James Cotton and revisited gospel style as a book-end). It comes complete with Steve Marriner’s stellar wailing harp and a crisp, big toned guitar solo.
He then slips into a blues-rock revisit of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Still A Fool’, adding lashing of big toned guitar over a pulsating rhythm section and just enough grit in the vocal to make a meaningful connection with the song.
The real job at hand isn’t so much to emphasize his playing ability as to bring something new or communicate real empathy with the subject matter.
He does both with some tasty slide on Arthur Crupdup’s ‘Dig Myself A Hole’, over some nuanced doowop bv’s and horns. Tracks like this is might be grist to the mill for a player of James ability, but he does bring a sense of delight with his uplifting solo and ebullient phrasing
There’s also a sense of flow at the core of the album, mirroring the fact he’s undertaking a journey into the blues. For example, he digs deep for some vocal emotion on his own outstanding minor key blues ‘I Will Remain’, which is song that can hold its own with all the older blues covers here.
’40 Light Years’ is equally good, but different, as he demonstrates a lightness of touch on a swampy song that could be Mark Knopfler meets Tony Joe White and JJ Cale, over a lovely shuffle beat and more great harmonica
Blues diehards might question the inclusion of Charles Brown’s ‘Black Night’, if only because it’s an exemplar of piano and vocal blues. James retains some piano and adds a smidgen of organ, but transposes it into a clipped note, warm-toned guitar scenario, without adding much to the vocals.
It’s at this stage of the album that the concept of revising blues favourites wears a bit thin, if only because Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Soul Of A Man’ has been covered by everybody lately, but James breaks new ground with some delicate percussion, distant harp and a down-home dobro feel, before his slide playing takes centre stage.
He brings little more than dutiful reverence to both ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’ and ‘I Need Your Love So Bad’, which again makes us question why those two covers?
Happily, he redresses the balance with some weighty sonic presence on ‘Tears Came Rollin’ Down’, as a combination of nicely distorted guitar and harp makes way for a swaggering guitar solo gives the song real heft.
‘Miles To Go’ is a project that could hold many pitfalls for an artist of lesser ability than Colin James. His tasteful playing always supports the songs and his band add requisite instrumental support, while his singing is that of a blues related artist with enough experience to bring meaningful interpretations to the material.
Such is the quality of his own songs that it’s a shame he didn’t find room for a couple more, rather than revisiting a the sort of blues covers that all self respective blues fans already have copious versions of. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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