COLIN JAMES – Open Road (Stoney Plain SPCD1434)

Open RoadOpen Road is the twentieth album in the distinguished career of Colin James. The Canadian guitar-slinger has famously rubbed shoulders with many of the all-time musical greats throughout his musical journey. From swing revival to Christmas music, James has done his fair share of musical exploration over the years. His latest, Open Road, sees the Juno award winning musician positioned squarely within his comfort zone of rhythm and blues.

Rather than place an emphasis on ground-up song construction, James’ often opts to lean on tried and true numbers as a jumping off point for his expressive, razor sharp blues playing. He acts almost as a curator, bringing together elements he feels represents his musical vision from the producer’s chair along with Dave Meszaros. It’s worth noting, however, that James is credited as a co-writer on four of the album’s tracks. One such track is lead single and title track ‘Open Road’, a mellow but confident recounting of life and trials past. The track carries the sense of a man who has seen it all and has come out on the other side to tell the tale. It is ultimately conceded that while “some scars are never going to heal”, the boundless possibility of life is enough to offset any bitterness it may have left in its wake. The conclusion?  “Every life is an open road”.

It is important to understand that, while Open Road offers a wealth of quality songs, this project is, above all else, a blues record. James’ tone is impeccable throughout. While the guitar heroics make the occasional appearance, each note it seems – even those compacted within a flurry of sound – feels as though it was put in its place to serve a specific purpose. There isn’t much in the way of clutter throughout the album. Each element is given sufficient room to breathe, and moments of excess are few and far between.

The atmosphere is established from the offset with slinky Dobro tones which reel the listener into James’ take on Tony Joe White’s thumping ‘As The Crow Flies’. The production throughout the record is quite modern and highly accessible, a stark contrast at times to the rowdy romps that constitute the album’s instrumental sections. James’ lead tone is thick and concurrently sharp in a manner which harkens back to the signature sound of Johnny “Guitar” Watson much in the way that Frank Zappa’s did.

James frontloads the record with plenty of classic firepower, executing an assured take on Albert King’s ‘That’s Why I’m Crying’ before launching into the brooding minor blues of Magic Sam’s ‘Can’t You See What You’re Doing To Me’. The latter is a classic cut which gets to the nuts and bolts of the genre in its deep, personal expression rooted in a universal simplicity which can be adopted by just about anybody who has found themselves on the business end of an unfair exchange.

As previously noted, the blues element is omnipresent throughout the proceedings, from the heavy-swinging ‘Change It’ to the appearance of John Lee Hooker’s ‘Bad Boy’. While a number of musical elements colour the tracks, the blues can always be found at the centre.

Open Road is not without its softer moments, however. ‘Raging River’, one of the numbers co-written by James, makes effective use of gospel elements musically and thematically. Lyrical, sinister guitar leads lurk in the background of the track, contrasting ever so slightly in character with the track’s chord progression. One can hear shades of Springsteen in the presentation both musically and lyrically.

Not one to shy away from taking on the work of the big guns, James includes two Bob Dylan numbers on the album. The first, ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry’ from the seminal Highway 61 Revisited, swings earnestly and proves that you just can’t shake the wild, mercury sound off of these things, not that you’d want to. The second, ‘Down On The Bottom’, began life as an unreleased Dylan lyric which was fleshed out by Jim James of My Morning Jacket for the 2014 project Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes. The track is an album highlight on which James showcases the range and emotive capacity of his voice. An impeccable bridge and a powerful wah solo round the song out.

‘I Love You More Than Words Can Say’ brings things to a close, summoning the gospel elements heard on ‘Raging River’ and then some. The song functions as an airy 6/8 waltz that seems to drift along through the sonic soundscape it is actively building as it goes along. Wailing organs and a dynamic rhythm section – a consistent pleasure to behold through the entirety of the album – end the album on a powerful note.

It is clear from Open Road that Colin James is a man assured with his own history and his place in music. With nothing left to prove and the freedom to play to his heart’s content, Colin James’ path forward very much appears to be an Open Road.

Cameron Gunnoe

Artist’s website:

‘Down On The Bottom’ – official video:

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