For Colin James, the blues has been a lifelong love—so much so that he’ll be showcasing it when he takes over the Harvest stage.
The six-time Juno winner has released 18 albums over a long, celebrated career, dabbling in a variety of styles and genres. However, with his upcoming Harvest gig, James will be promoting his most recent album—last October’s Blue Highways, recorded in just two days—a rollicking and earnest tribute to his favourite genre; by his own admission, it’s a record he’s wanted to make for years.
“It was nice to make a blues record after years of doing stuff that was more on the fence: big band records, pop records, rock records where we kinda ‘chased radio’ a little bit,” James explained. “It was nice to do a record like this, where I was picking up songs that I loved when I was younger, ‘cause between the ages of 16 and 18 or 19, I just wanted to be like John Hammond Jr.” —a popular American blues guitarist from the 60s. With this album, James pays tribute to this and other longtime idols, such as Howlin’ Wolf, Blind Willie McTell and Robert Johnson.
The Canadian guitar icon admits he grew up “kinda liking everything.”
“As a kid, I had parents who loved folk revival, Odetta, the Staples Singers—kind of a wide reach … It was my older brother who introduced me to Hendrix and Cream and the psychedelia of that whole thing,” James said; however, none of these styles compared to the blues.
“When I saw blues, something in it connected with me in a way that other things didn’t … I was around 16 when I saw James Cotton live at a big outdoor festival”—a festival not unlike Harvest, suggesting that a similar life-changing experience could await a young kid in the crowd of James’s set— “And that was a big moment … I think I realized I was trying to be someone else at one point and I thought: this is more me … This is something I feel in me.”
When pressed to elaborate on what it is about the style that continues to resonate so authentically with him, James was quick to offer an explanation:
“It’s a visceral, emotional type of music. It’s also a moving canvas, so it’s never the same twice. You really have to bring it, and if you can’t bring it, you shouldn’t do the song—because what’s the point?”
It is a genre with a deep history. “From rockabilly to certain types of country, the blues was kind of the seed of so much,” James said. This history is something that he—even as a lifelong student of the genre—is still learning more about.
“This has become my passion, and yet I still hear names that I’ve never heard of before. Just knowing the groundwork of the seminal blues artists … It takes a long time. You can be an armchair listener or an avid listener and still go: ‘Who? I don’t remember hearing that name before,’ then go down a whole ’nother deep rabbit hole. I love that about it. I still have to admit when somebody will say, ‘Have you heard enough Skip James?’ or a name that I just haven’t listened to a lot of them, and I go: ‘No.’ It’s always an ongoing thing.”
It is also a genre that can sometimes be slightly misunderstood.
“Blues has had a funny way of being maligned over the years as down-n-out music—but as the seed of rock n roll, you listen to any of the early blues shouters from the late-40s to mid-50s, you’re hearing young men and young women rocking out.”
Fans can expect this very aspect of the blues to be on full display for his Harvest performance.
“My thing has always been energy,” James said. “Blues doesn’t always have to be down-n-out. There’s a whole lot of energy in a performance, and that’s what I’ve always tried to bring to the table.”
Colin James will take the stage at the Moose Light Blues Tent on Sept. 16, 10:00 p.m. For tickets and more info, visit Harvestjazzandblues.com.