A&E » Arts

Still searching for the Holy Grail



Colin James and the endless road

Who: Colin James, with opening act Chin

What: Whistler Jazz and Blues Festival

Where: Whistler Conference Centre

When: June 15, 8 p.m.

He’s a "meet the parents" kind of rock star.

Colin James headlines this year’s Whistler Jazz and Blues Weekend, June 14 through 16. Last year’s festival, which was scheduled for Sept. 13-16 was cancelled following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Unfazed by the glitz of the industry or the unending questions of journalists, James is a lively, amicable guy who apologizes for ringing through 20 minutes late from a car phone in North Vancouver.

You can almost picture him playing a Fender Strat. one minute, frisbee golf the next. The guitar model has always been James’ first choice on the road to success, as he created his signature blues and swing sound throughout the ’90s.

James says the beauty of blues is in the shift.

"This is really emotional music so it changes night to night," he says, with the track Of All the Things To Throw Away on the 2000 album Fuse serving as testimony.

"Sometimes you lay down a song, and if you feel heavy in your heart, that comes across, but that feeling changes from night to night."

Considered by some to be the modern day harbinger of swing music in Canada, that sway of a song is James’ specialty.

"I’ve kept it fresh by moving around musically. I don’t consider myself a blues player, but everything I do starts from that point."

A family man happily married for 10 years, James maintains a healthy thirst for "the new new thing," as author Michael Lewis might put it.

"I’m still searching for that perfect record, the one where you sit back and say ‘that’s the record I always wanted to make.’"

Despite six Junos (including two for Best Male Vocalist and one for Best Blues Recording for 1998’s National Steel ) and successfully completing albums in two different genres, blues and big band swing, he’s still looking for the Holy Grail – a perspective that fuels his song writing.

"Writing’s such an odd thing – generally I always write with partners. And if you’re going to be in a room that long with someone, you might as well enjoy it!"

His first album was the self-titled Colin James in 1988. Sudden Stop was 1990’s project, followed by the introduction of Colin James and the Little Big Band in 1993. The "jump blues" album went on to sell 200,000 copies in Canada, testifying to the genre’s popularity. Bad Habits followed (1995), then National Steel .

In 1999, Colin James and the Little Big Band II scooped the Best Producer accolade at the Junos. Two originals, Rocket to the Moon, and Triple Shot, were featured on the album, examples of his continuing tribute to swing style.

His most recent album, Fuse , is a collaboration with drummer Pat Stewart and Craig Northey of Vancouver band The Odds. The next record is due for release this summer, and promises to be "really listeneable." He adds, "We’re not going to chase radio on this one, which has become really polarized anyhow.

"But as long as you have that, you always have that carrot dangling, that motivation to make it better."

With plans to promote Fuse in Europe and the new album in the works, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when he was busking on the streets.

But he doesn’t dwell on that. James is all about the positive messages.

"Believe in yourself," he tells emerging guitar players, and "watch your hands.

"Make sure your heart is really in it, (because) it’s not easy, and takes a long time."

Born in 1964 as Colin James Munn in Regina, James left home at 16 to pursue his career.

His first band was called Hoodoo Men, but there were numerous improv jam sessions on the road to success.

Of his mainstay, shuffle and blues, he simply calls it "a feeling; you either have it or you don’t."

With talent and a bit of luck hooking up in concert with the late Texas blues great Stevie Ray Vaughn in 1983, James always seemed positioned on the road to success.

He met Vaughn by chance through a "right time, right place" meeting, when the opening act for Vaughn’s concert cancelled at the last minute and James was called in.

"‘Who are you?’ he said to me when I was in the dressing room backstage, and I said ‘I’m Colin James, and I’m performing at your concert tonight,’ to which he said ‘Well nice to meet ya!’"

But when he started playing swing music around 1993, people thought James was out of his mind. He quips, "there’s a certain amount of honesty that comes across in how you deliver something," a formula he has mastered in show after show.

"We’d pull into Chicago and people had heard I was this Canadian blues singer. They were so into the trend of costumes and swing music, if you played anything they saw as swing (they got really excited about it)."

He explains the style had reached such fervour, it was more difficult to introduce something like a blues song during a performance. These days, he adds, the personalities of the blues scene are getting smaller in number.

"The music industry doesn’t have the old greats it used to, and a lot of icons in blues from the ’60s are gone, so what are you going to have left in music?"

If he ever took those musings and put them in a book, he’d call it Here We Go Again, or, The Endless Road.

"I count my blessings all the time. It could always be better but I look at it as a whole, (what I have got this far) is what I always wanted out of it."

And when the videographers are capturing your life on film, you know you’re doing well. The 1998 Global documentary Colin James: Rock, Rhythm and Blues, featured footage of the Canadian singer on stage and at home in the studio.

But time and place never overtake good music.

"You can be anywhere, and play any style, it doesn’t matter where you’re from."

The opening act for James’s Whistler concert will be musician Chin Injeti, formerly of pop-funk group Bass is Base, who plays from his first solo release, Day Dreaming.

Chin was nominated for a Juno in 2002 for Best R& B/Soul recording, as well as for the Best Urban release at the West Coast Music Awards this year.

Chin recently remixed the single Pinch Me for Canadian wonderboys the Barenaked Ladies.