Blues rocker and road warrior Colin James takes the fast lane
Travelling cross-country to work with long-time songwriting partner Tom Wilson has given blues rocker Colin James a few scares – and some musical inspiration
Writing songs with Hamilton’s Tom Wilson can be dangerous.
Just ask Colin James. Over the years, the Vancouver rocker has written some of his best tracks with Wilson, including the 1995 hit Freedom.
The two seem to have a natural ability to make music together. As a matter of fact, five of the 12 songs on James’s latest CD, aptly entitled 15 – it’s also the 15th album release of his 25-year-recording career – are co-authored by Wilson.
This long-distance relationship, however, does have its drawbacks.
Even in this digital interface world, James tries to avoid writing via internet. He needs that personal connection. So he often finds himself flying from Western Canada to Ontario.
Sometimes the two musicians meet up in hotel rooms in Toronto, but, more often than not, James finds himself making the unfamiliar trip along the 401/QEW/403 to Wilson’s home on a leafy street south of Aberdeen on Hamilton’s west side. (Wilson doesn’t drive.)
James, 48, is more familiar with a laid-back lifestyle with his family amid the lush mountains of Vancouver’s north shore – bicycle rides down to Lighthouse Park and such – so he doesn’t particularly like making the drive on the 403. He has to do it, though. It’s a cost of doing business.
On occasion, the frustrations of the drive tend to influence the songs Wilson and James compose. Take the first single on 15, for example. It’s an angry, fast-paced rocker called Stone Faith.
The song opens up like this: Get your tired ass pulled over to the side of the road/Get your hands off the wheel before you lose your load.
Typical truck-driving lyrics? Not really. James wrote that song right after getting stopped by police for speeding on the way to Wilson’s house.
“On that day, I rushed out of the airport, jumped into my car and ended up getting pulled over on the 401,” James says in a telephone interview. “You have to speed on that thing ... you have to keep on going for your dear life because that’s what everybody else is doing.
“I think I came into the room, looking awful, like somebody who had flown all day, jumped into a car and got a speeding ticket. So we ended up writing it into the song.”
It wasn’t the only close encounter on the road to Wilson’s house.
“It was the middle of winter about two or three in the afternoon,” James recalls. “The snow was coming down really hard. I was driving along when the snow suddenly slumped off my roof and onto my windshield. I couldn’t see. I was reaching around trying to bat snow off the windshield. I slowly made my way to the shoulder, hoping nobody was going to nail me. It was pretty hair raising.”
Over his career, James has performed in many different styles – the acoustic blues of National Steel, the old-timey jazz of little big band and the Van Morrison-inspired balladry of Limelight. 15, however, is a return to the straight-ahead blues-rock for which James is best known.
“You never know where life is going to take you,” he says. “You have to keep an open mind and then all of a sudden someone says, ‘why don’t you do an English pub rock record and slam down 12 hard-rocking tracks.’ Okay, I’ll go there.”
One of those tracks is a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s 1969 extended guitar slammer, Oh Well. The selection was inspired by a session in which James jammed out with Fleetwood Mac founder Mick Fleetwood in Hawaii.
“I got a chance to go play with him a couple of years ago in Maui,” James says. “I flew over there to have a rehearsal with him and his band and ended playing a New Year’s show in a small club. I got to sit in on a couple of tunes. He was a real sweet gentleman. I got to play on Black Magic Woman and Shake Your Money Maker.
“It was just a howl. If somebody had told me as a kid that I’d get to play a couple of tunes with Mick Fleetwood, I just wouldn’t have believed them. When I was in Grade 6, I loved (the 1969 album) Fleetwood Mac in Chicago. I learned so much great blues playing off that one record.”
James will be making another trip along the QEW/403 with his band when he performs Friday, Oct. 19, at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre. He also performs at Brantford’s Sanderson Centre Oct. 26, 8 p.m. $49. 519-758-8090/800-265-0710, sandersoncentre.ca.