Colin James: This guitar god is seriously down to earth

Mentored by the great Stevie Ray Vaughan, James continues to share his passion for music by mentoring emerging musicians

Colin James

Colin James

In the beginning, Colin James’ show consisted of a guy with a guitar.

The Saskatchewan boy busked the streets of Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg and eventually settled in Vancouver, but not before paying his dues in the Capital City.

“I’d set up in front of a liquor store, or I’d go right down in front of the wharf,” says James. “I met some other people doing the same thing. It was never my favourite, but it was a necessity.”

Thirty years and six Junos later, the guitar star is going back to the basics. He’s turning down the volume on his electric live show and entering what he calls a quieter, more song-oriented acoustic phase. This is what he’ll be showcasing in the sold-out theatre at the Mary Winspear Centre on Nov. 14.

“I love the electric thing and I’ve been doing it forever, but the acoustic shows gives a chance for the music to breathe a little bit,” James says. “The songs become the focus, as opposed to an hour-and-a-half show where you’re rocking out. I can do some of my quieter songs that, in the context of a rock show, you just wouldn’t get a chance to do.”

The shift is in contrast to James’ latest release, 25 Live, recorded at The Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver on the 25th anniversary of his first sold out run in the historic venue. When the idea to make the album arose casually over dinner with his band one night, James got behind it, because a live album is a bit like a Christmas album: something all artists are required to do eventually, he quips. But not every artist is afforded such musical serendipity. As James stepped out on the same stage last November, he glimpsed back to the thrill of first making it in his new hometown.

“It was bizarre. I remember so many nights, driving down for a show at the Commodore. Twenty-five years later, here we are back again.”

Though his career in an unpredictable industry has seen many changes, the young rocker, famously mentored by Stevie Ray Vaughan back then, and the veteran of the music industry he has become today, maintains the same approach. He channels his energies into playing live music and would never turn down an opportunity to try something new.

“You have to stay open,” James says. “To do one thing over and over again is the easy way, because everybody knows what you’re doing. You’ve got to keep on doing things to challenge yourself.”

Part of the challenge has come in the form of developing his vocals like never before, a joy that’s taken the 49 year old by surprise, despite having picked up two Junos for Male Vocalist of the Year.

“I love singing so much. I always sang and I’ve been singing in my own band since I was 16, but I listen to some of my early recordings and I hear a kid trying to sing.”

James, who has played regular gigs from the age of 17 and recorded 15 studio albums before 25 Live, embraces that side of his well-documented career. The path was paved with mistakes every step of the way, he says, including weak vocals on the hit Why’d You Lie.

“At the end of the day, it’s about continuing to do what you love to do come hell or high water. You’re not going to love everything you did. You’re going to look back at some of the stuff and say: ‘What was I thinking?’ But that’s cool. That’s life.”

James is a musical chameleon, shifting from rock to pop to blues and back again. After receiving 16 Maple Blues Awards and credit for leading the swing revival with his Little Big Band, he still holds the record for the fastest-selling album in Canadian history for his 1988 debut. It stands to reason then that his personal taste is as diverse, ranging from Lucinda Williams to Oasis, with an emphasis on those who convey a certain loneliness in their writing.

“Whether it’s my song or someone else’s, I look for songs that you can emotionally connect to.

Some are stories, some just sound cool.”

The father of two teenaged sons – both more sporty than musical, he says – balks at the label of quiet superstar, hoping instead to go down in the rock history books as someone considered a “very hilarious, handsome man.” He delights in how his shows now draw a new generation of fans who find their way to his music via their parents, and that he’s found mentoring relationships with emerging musicians his own work has influenced, not unlike the one he shared with Vaughan.

“He really took the time and it was crazy-exciting,” he says of the blues guitar legend, who died in 1990. “I think about him often. He’d make sure I was OK backstage. He bought me a hotel room when I was on the road because he knew that I had no money. Beyond the call. It was amazing.”

And though one of the handful of musicians James has been able to help guide, band member Chris Caddell, happened to recently divulge he played a Colin James tune in his high school talent show – when the two are out on stage together, there is no ego.

“He’s a great harmonizer and we both have similar tastes in music, so it’s a riot,” James says. “That’s been my drive all the way along and I’m so glad I’ve been able to keep it going and keep playing because that’s what got me into it in the first place, more so than the other things that come along with the joy of making music. I love it.”

While best-of and live discs may conjure connotations of petering-out or career-dwindling, James bucks any such trend with a trip to the recording studio planned for the spring. The next record, he says, should capture his current affection for a more vocally-driven acoustic sound.

“There’s always a search for the record with more continuity and a better overall vibe, or better singing. You’re always looking for that thing. That’s why it’s important to change it up because it could take shape in so many different ways.”

James will continue to make music, but guarantees little else: which direction he’ll turn in the studio, which projects he’ll agree to over dinner, or when his Christmas album drops.