Up Close and Personal with Colin James
Canadian Music Hall of Famer and blues legend Colin James Munn may not have been born with a guitar in his hand but, considering his trajectory in childhood, it wouldn’t have been too surprising if he had been. He was a Regina, Saskatchewan kid bottle fed on the blues that started playing guitar when most his age were playing hide-and-seek. He dropped out of high school in the tenth grade to form his first band the Hoodoo Men and, while such a move might not be encouraged for everyone, for James the gamble paid off. Shortly after, while still in his teens, James would be opening for blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan. It’s something he still finds pretty unbelievable.
“It was unreal you know,” James says looking back. “I had been playing for a few years by then, trying this and that, living here and there. I had gone back to my hometown to chill out as I was pretty broke in my new home of Vancouver. That is when I got the call to open for Stevie in Saskatoon. We became quick friends and it kind of changed everything for me.”
The first change was to the name. Vaughan suggested that the “Munn” be dropped in favour of simply “Colin James” because, as rumour goes, he thought the actual last name sounded like “mud” over the P.A. systems. James obliged. His first album, released in 1988, was self-titled and contained his first hits “Five Long Years” and “Voodoo Thing” and also netted James his first of six Juno Awards. Nearly three decades later, James was swinging back into Ottawa on April 2 for a sold-out show at the National Arts Centre promoting his 16th studio release Hearts on Fire.
James was looking for something a little different with this release. Hearts on Fire is a smoother offering than James’ past albums.
“I really wanted a record you put on and left on,” James says. “We didn't go searching for radio singles on this.”
The guitar, so signature to his sound, moves to the background to let his voice move to the forefront. Much of the album, co-produced with long-time friend Colin Linden, was recorded down in Nashville and you can hear some of the city’s country twang influence in tunes like ”Just A Little Love” or the soul touching “Dreams May Come”. It’s a town James feels pretty comfortable returning to.
“I actually lived down in Nashville for a few months in the late nineties. I feel quite at home there and know my way around a bit,” he says. “Colin Linden has been living there for quite a while and we know some people in common there as well. We recorded at the House of Blues studios and I got to soak up a bit of that southern sun and hospitality.”
James put together what he calls a “killer section” for the album that includes bass player Willie Weeks and Bob Dylan’s drummer George Receli. You really hear it all come together on a track like “Honey Bee”. If the album could be compared to resting back one sunny Sunday on a dirt road front porch with a cold beer close by, that cut is the thunder storm that touches down out of nowhere to kick up the dust.
One of the album’s best songs is also the most surprising. James is no stranger to cover tunes having worked a little John Lennon, Otis Redding and a stellar version of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” into his repertoire before. However, when one thinks of him, it’s a fair bet the name Rihanna –yes, the R&B, hip-hop reggae infused “Good Girl Gone Bad” Rihanna- doesn’t instantly spring to mind in terms of musicians that would find themselves covered on a Colin James record. Her song “Stay”, however, seems right at on home on this album and James makes it his own.
“I heard it on the radio once and really liked it,” James says of discovering the song. “I played it in a sound check for fun one day and thought it would take to an acoustic version pretty well. A lot of things come from sound checks! That's how we started doing Into the Mystic as well.”
“Stay” capped off the night at the NAC in a show that James was calling an Up Close and Personal performance. The concert, presented in partnership with BMO Financial Group, was part of the fifth anniversary of the NAC Presents series of Canadian music. It was originally intended as a more solo acoustic set of some of the new tunes mixed in with alternate renditions of hits like “Just Came Back”, but when James discovered the venue sold out quick he figured he’d better bring along a band. Still, the show was stripped down some with James sitting through a set that sifted favourably through his back catalogue.
“What a nice way to come back to Ottawa after so long,” James said after the second standing ovation for the more intimate performance. Fans that were looking for some blistering guitar solos, however, didn’t go away disappointed. James, who took to that guitar like a toddler does a rattle, provided plenty.