A&E » Music

Colin James still rolling strong

Canadian blues rocker plays a free show at Whistler Olympic Plaza this Saturday



WHO: Colin James with Gonch Messiah

WHERE: Whistler Olympic Plaza

WHEN: Saturday August 13, at 7 p.m.

Colin James throws around names like ZZ Top, Jeff Healy, Stevie Ray Vaughn like it's no big thing. It actually is no big thing. He's known these people for ages. For two decades he's been rolled up, bundled and baked in the same dough as these rock and roll greats - and more. Many more. It's a bit surreal just to hear James talk about it. For James, it's life.

"It's what I've been doing all my life," James says, on the phone from his North Vancouver home. "It's just the benefit of putting 25, no, 30 years into it now. Those are the memories that you love."

He's done it all, you know. He's toured the world. He's riffed with Carlos Santana, with Buddy Guy. He launched his career by opening for Stevie Ray Vaughn. His first two albums scored international hit singles of blues-rock rebellion. Not too shabby for a young Quaker from the flatlands of Regina.

And now, 23 years after the release of that self-titled debut album, James is still rolling. He's maintained a career in an industry where the word "washed up" is as common as "new album." He may not be on the cutting edge in 2011, but he's still making music and playing to fans that still seem to give a damn.

"I'm just so amazed I can do it for a living still," he says. "I always say that and it sounds like a broken record but really, the gist of it is I was a boy thinking, 'Can I make a living playing guitar?'"

The answer is...well, obvious. His 1988 debut album landed several hit singles, including "Five Long Years." His follow-up, 1990's Sudden Stop , earned him two Junos and another hit single, "Just Came Back." He was a big deal in Canada's musical landscape in the days before grunge sideswiped his brand of the blues off the charts.

His popularity declined in the mid-1990s, not that it slowed him down any. He's released an album every other year since 1988, either on his own or with his swing-loaded Little Big Band. Failure was never much of an option because, he says, he's never really considered it an option.

"I think I had pretty much blind faith that it would all work out," he says, laughing. "I think if I didn't maybe nothing would have worked out as well as it did. But I was pretty driven to play music, that's for sure."

There were hard times. Playing in subways was never much fun. He's been that guy playing for quarters outside BC Liquor Stores. Anything to get by. It was in those moments where he thought, as musicians often will, that nothing is all he'll ever get.

And then something small happened and spurred him on to the next thing. And on and on it went until last fall, when legendary producer Bob Rock is recording his single, "It's Gonna Be Alright" - one of two new tracks recorded for and released on the new "best of" compilation Take It From the Top , which spans his 20-plus year career.

The song sounds less like a guy hanging on and more like a guy charging ahead. "It's Gonna be Alright" is a freight train of blues-rock riffage, with all the gusto and fury a 20-year-old novice can only hope to channel. It's also a good indicator of why Colin James is still held in high regard as a Canadian guitarist, one who somehow manages to balance the weekends and months away on tour with the domesticated existence of family life.

This summer, James is hosting the nine-part CBC Radio 2 program Behind the Beat, airing on Fridays. The radio show is a hobby, if anything. He's never had any great ambition to be a rock DJ or a secret desire to host a TV show, write a book, start an apple orchard. As far as extra curricular hobbies go, he'll travel. Otherwise, it's only rock and roll, baby.

"Professionally, it's writing songs, making records. That's where I'm at," he says.

He's also been writing new songs and hopes to get back in the studio this fall and working with some old friends...which is where those big names we mentioned come back into play: Ron Sexsmith, Big Sugar's Gordie Johnson, ZZ Top producer Joe Hardy. It's the life he leads, man. Get used to it.



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