Colin James, Commodore Ballroom, Nov. 8, 9 and 10. Sold Out.
THE car went end over end, crashing on a quiet road on the outskirts of Regina, Sask.
After emerging relatively unhurt, Colin James had an epiphany.
"I just said, 'That's it, I'm moving. I'm going to get out of school, I'm going to start doing this for real. I'm wasting time,'" he says.
Before howling his way onto the Canadian rock scene 25 years ago with "Voodoo Thing," James had what he calls a "brief flirtation" with new wave and punk.
"Because I'd grown up with all these older people, especially folkies, I started at one point thinking that I'd missed the boat on my youth a little bit, and I started hanging out with people my age and joined a rock band. It wasn't really me, I knew it wasn't really me the whole time, but I just wanted to be hip," he recalls.
The car accident jarred him, and James returned to the type of music that filled the Regina house where he was born.
"They were music lovers of the highest order," he says of his parents. "They weren't the kind of people that ever said, 'Don't sing at the table.' I hear about other parents saying don't do that. My god, if we followed that doctrine I probably never would've become a musician."
Asked about the first records that moved him, James is quick to name "Israelites" by Desmond Dekker. A music historian as well as a fan, James offers a synopsis of the song's importance in pop culture history.
"The first reggae song from Jamaica to become a massive hit in North America," he says, recalling his first time hearing the song. "It was on one of those little tiny record players, you know those little plastic things with the built-in speakers."
While his own sound is usually distinct from reggae, those slow grooves are evident on James' songs like "Fool For You," one of the tracks from his new album 15.
The album is the culmination of several collaborations and a lifetime of loving music.
"For me it was a real homecoming to work with Joe Hardy again," James says of the album's producer.
Besides producing James' albums like Fuse, Sudden Stop, and Colin James and the Little Big Band, Hardy has also done a lot of the work on the new ZZ Top album.
"Rick Rubins is in name producing, but really, the trench work is all done by Joe," James says.
Besides similar musical sensibilities, James says Hardy sympathizes with a craftsmanship that borders on obsessive.
"Joe knows I'm a little bit crazy when it comes to starting to get down to stuff, I'm really super picky," James says
That precision is evident on tracks like "I Need You Bad," which incorporates layers of instruments and backing vocals on the up-tempo tune, as well as a vicious guitar solo.
James, who was once compared to Eric Clapton by blues legend John Lee Hooker, says he learned how to play the instrument in a slightly unconventional way.
"My oldest brother Robbie always played upside down and backwards. He was a lefty, so my first things I learned were all upside down and backwards on a guitar."
James says he started playing at about seven or eight, and proved to be a quick study.
"Once I started learning I learned fast. I went from kind of not knowing anything at the age of 10 to knowing a lot by 13."
Part of the reason for that accelerated musicianship was the tutelage of Saskatchewan's refugees from the Love Generation.
"I grew up raised by hippies," he says. "There was a big community of musicians and I was allowed in at a super young age and allowed just to sit and soak it in and learn how to play."
James has crossed many musical borders since first hefting a guitar, playing Celtic music with The Chieftains and opening for George Thorogood, who took Hooker's blues and blasted them onto rock radio.
"I love blues but I love rock and I love so many different types of music. One thing I've always tried to do is just keep it fresh. As much as I love blues I've never been good at just going, 'OK, I'm going to be a blues player. I'm going to play blues all the time. As soon as I get into that then I just want to find the door," James says. "If I had to make Little Big Band records every time I would never make any. It's the space away from it that allows me to come back and do it with heart."
The tendency that sends James transgressing musical boundaries is evident in conversation, as he jumps from one musical icon to the next.
"I'm fascinated with Bob Marley right now. I'm equally fascinated with Bill Withers," James says before delving into Ry Cooder.
Despite his days playing blues riffs in front of West Vancouver liquor stores and facing tough nightclub crowds, James has persisted.
"Those are the moments that make you if you can get through 'em," he says. "I remember getting stuff thrown at me one time. I think at one point I said, 'At least you're throwing loonies.'"
Like fire tests steel and a woman named Lucille tested B.B. King's sanity, those trying times tested James.
"If you can stay through all that stuff and keep your head straight then you're probably going to be alright. I think it probably means that you love it enough to not get beaten down," he says. "I was just lucky enough that some of my worst doubts were followed by exhilarating chance."
In the early 1980s James had come to Vancouver to join forces with a San Francisco harmonica player.
"I loved his playing and I wanted to be in his band so bad that I moved to Vancouver pretty much to try to get into his band, which worked, I got in his band, but then when he came down to do a showcase he didn't think I was ready," James says.
The masterless guitar player headed home, completely unaware that a phone call from Texas axeman Stevie Ray Vaughan was about to change his life.
"I went back to Regina with my tail between my legs to say hi to my parents and try to get a little confidence, and I got the job opening for Stevie the next night," he recalls. "That opened up a whole new chapter for me. So you never know what's going to happen next."
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