One of Canada’s most renowned blues artists, Colin James, has reached a milestone, issuing his 20th album, Open Road. It’s the third in a trilogy of records. It’s the follow-up to 2018’s Juno Award -winning Miles to Go, and 2016’s Blue Highways. Even though the travel motif is in the title of all three albums, James considers the previous two more straight-ahead blues while this one stays close but is more of a mix, leaning into roots and Americana. James found an increasingly growing U.S. audience for his previous albums and is understandably reluctant to stray from success. Here he offers originals, co-written with longtime collaborators Colin Linden, Craig Northey, and Tom Wilson while covering Bob Dylan, Albert King, Magic Sam, John Lee Hooker,Tony Joe White, Booker T., and Otis Rush.
As the album was recorded in five different studios during the pandemic with mixing down at the iconic Abbey Road Studios in London, the personnel shifts between tracks with James relying mostly on his live and studio sidemen over the years, augmented by a few guests. Drummer Geoff Hicks, bassists Steve Pelletier and Norm Fischer, and B3 players Simon Kendall and Jesse O’Brien, and rhythm guitarist Chris Caddell form the core band. O’Brien also plays piano and harmonicist Steve Marriner and saxophonists Jerry Cook and Steve Hilliam join on select tracks.
He begins with a stomping Interpretation of Tony Joe White’s “As the Crow Flies,” digging into the swampy feel while he proves he can handle the string bending technique of Albert King next on “Can’t You See What You’re Doing to Me?” His slow, simmering take on Magic Sam’s “That’s Why I’m Crying” with Kendall’s B3 is soulfully chill inducing. The title track, penned with Northey, has been released as one of two singles, the other being a cover of Dylan’s “Down on the Bottom.” “Open Road” is a mid-tempo, radio friendly groover with overdubbed background vocals for the infectious chorus. Rather obviously, it reminds us of how much we missed those road trips during the pandemic shutdown, rules for which still are stricter in Canada than in the states.
Doyle Bramhall’s “Change It” brings inspired guitar playing but as a fully constructed song doesn’t connect as well as co-writes, “Raging River” with Colin Linden and “When I Leave This House” with Linden’s Blackie & the Rodeo Kings bandmate Tom Wilson. On the former, Linden plays a scorching slide guitar blending well with James’ electric, on this ominously haunting album standout, that also features a strong vocal from James. The hard charging, defiant Wilson co-write is fueled in part by barrelhouse piano from O’Brien with James taking no prisoners in his blistering solo either. James explores more of need for togetherness through his faithful take on Otis Rush’s “It Takes Time” with Marriner blowing his harp with abandon and Cook and Hilliam filling the bottom with his baritone and tenor saxes.
The slow blues, “There’s a Fire” is the second co-write with Linden, but if one didn’t know better, judging from the initial licks and the underlying B3, it could almost be taken as an Albert King song. James then tackles two Dylan tunes, first the oft covered “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” with an up-tempo swinging interpretation imbued by the two saxes and some searing slide playing from the leader. The second is one Dylan wrote with Jim James, the aforementioned single, “Down on the Bottom,” infused with power chords and a declamatory, powerful vocals from James and Northey, who also slings his guitar, as they do engage in a searing outro. In between, James covers John Lee Hooker, in a stirring straight-ahead solo guitar accompanied take. Finally, in perhaps the most surprising selection, James nods to Stax, and specifically to Booker T. and Eddie Floyd pouring out his sweet, slow soul take on “I Love You More Than Words Can Say.”
All considered, this is quite swath of roots and blues music, but the masterful James proves to be not only versatile but evocative in his deep respect and passion for the music. There is no new ground and as many of the takes are faithful as others are inventive, yet the co-writes are especially strong, and all is deftly handled with aplomb.
- Jim Hynes