Always learning; A veteran, Colin James says he learned a few tips from blues legend Buddy Guy.


Spotlight: The Colin James Open Road Tour is at the Jubillee on October 2. Tickets through Ticketmaster

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Colin James picked up some helpful advice from Buddy Guy during a March US tour in which James accompanied the American blues legend, and not necessarily suggestions on chord progressions or vocal variations.

Along with a well-known and proven ability to perform music, interaction with the audience is what the senior bluesman does so well. And James, a Canadian blues legend in his own right, was all eyes and ears, enjoying Guy’s velvet chatter in a myriad of venues, from Rochester, New York, to Los Angeles, with plenty of stops in between.

“And if you see Buddy Guy on any given night, there’s a lot to talk about,” says James, who will be in Calgary at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium on Oct. 2. “Someone who has been doing it his whole life, and he was quite fascinating.”

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James and Guy are no strangers, first sharing the stage early in James’ career, in the mid to late 1980s.

“I’ve known Buddy for years, but to do 19 shows in a row where you really get to see the differences in the show, or one night when he was inspired, he did this or that a little bit differently. That was so much fun,” he says. “Our bands got along really well, our teams got along really well. We really had a riot playing.”

And given the fact that James’ act has been playing a few shows as a trio, preparing for more intimate audience settings is sure to pay off.

“I’ve done a lot of (full band shows) where you can go out (with) pure volume and blast your way through a set. Which I love…don’t get me wrong,” says James, who has been doing the trimmed-down trio on and off for the last decade, and recalls one of his first standout performances at Toronto’s famed Massey Hall. “That scared me.

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“Thank goodness a couple of friends showed up that night. Somehow calmed my nerves. But he taught me to talk a little bit more and it actually lends itself to my other shows because I find I’m not afraid to do that.”

The shows with Guy were a blessing for James for many reasons. For example, they provided a glorious opportunity to get back on the road after a long pandemic-induced layoff and, perhaps most importantly, James was able to return to touring without his name headlining the marquee. The pressure had eased a bit, but James was aware that this also meant he would have to prove himself to some when the company landed on somewhat uncharted ground.

“You’re taking advantage of (Guy’s) audience,” says James. “I knew that some people there would never have heard of me, for some there may be a vague memory. I really had to turn them around in a 45-minute set.”

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This is not so much the case with the tour in support of his Open Road album, where the spotlight has been set on the multi-award winning and multi-platinum artist. Armed with material from 20 studio albums, several recognizable singles (Voodoo Thing and Just Came Back being the standouts), and a reputation that has paved the way for collaborations both on stage and in the studio with a who’s who in the world of music (Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Winwood, and Long John Baldry, to name a few), James is thrilled to be back in what is surely one of his natural habitats.

“Oh man, words really can’t describe… It was great standing up with a guitar,” he says. “During the day, when you’re on the road and going in and out of a hotel, you’re going to do a sound check, you’re on your feet all day and you move, you move, you move. Moving. Then you do a show, then you do it all over again.

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“I can’t tell you how great it was to get back on stage and play and play for people who hadn’t often seen a band (for some time due to the pandemic).”

James and his band were on the US leg of a tour when COVID hit, so the less crowded studio was a natural spot to help keep the cobwebs away. Compounding the challenge of COVID, which dictated that Open Road be made during a “time where connecting with others was difficult”, was the fact that co-producer Dave Meszaros was working in England at the time.

“That created a whole series of problems where if we start at 11 o’clock on my time, which is usually my start time, it’s already 8 o’clock at night where he’s at,” says James. “So, we had to break it up little by little, have this time here, that time there.”

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Time differences aside, leveraging technology allowed for strong teamwork, allowing Meszaros to be right there putting his touch on everything, albeit virtually. The co-producer would “take over” James’s computer, “using my mouse”, employing an application that provided the same sound “from left to right” in real time.

“It was perfect,” says James. This also meant the musician had to take on engineering tasks from time to time, not at the top of James’ to-do list.

“(Meszaros) would leave me with something to do, so I would design my whole session, or design my own vocal session,” he says. “When we could do it together we did it, but when we couldn’t… One thing I’m not good at is if I do seven takes of a voice and have to edit between them, that’s not my favorite thing.”

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The bottom line was the fact that cutting-edge technology was available to make what would have been impossible not long before, very possible.

James seems humble and grateful.

(This was) something you could never have done until a year ago,” he says. “I’m literally walking around my studio with an iPad and he’s looking at my mics, where they’re on the speaker cone, saying, ‘Could you move that a little bit towards the speaker?’ hilarious Anyway, it works.

But the seasoned studio veteran, who undoubtedly played with a very different variety of switches and levers when recording his 1988 self-titled debut, keeps the personal touch. In other words, everyone hovering face to face over the control board is their recording method of choice.

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“The bottom line is that there is nothing better than working on something together because nothing is lost,” says James. “You can go into the minutiae… I missed that. But, there you go. We got over it and now, let’s move on.”

Progressing also means accumulating more national prestige. Album #20: Open Road – Earned James his 28th and 29th Maple Blues Awards for Male Vocalist and Electronic Act of the Year, and increased his Juno hardware tally to seven after it was named Blues Album of the Year.

Despite its impressive numbers, such recognition “doesn’t get old”.

“Nobody deep down loves something turning into a competition, but it’s great to focus energy on the Canadian music business, which has led the world stage so much,” says James. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

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And there’s nothing wrong with the niche that the internationally acclaimed, Regina-born rock and blues singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer and highly sought-after collaborator has carved out for himself. At 58, and still extremely active in the business, James could be called many names, including the greatest statesman in the Canadian music industry. But never an act of nostalgia.

“You don’t have to fall into that category (nostalgia) if you don’t want to,” says James. “There are things you can do with your career to prevent it, and I like to think I have.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding the oldies but rather the sweets and iconic songs on stage.

“You can’t help the fact that people have a romantic image of the songs that first discovered you. There’s nothing wrong with playing with it, but your heart has to be in it. If you’re going through the motions, then maybe this isn’t the time to do it.”

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