I really enjoyed Colin James’ previous blues album, National Steel which came out way back in 1997. So, I’m a little embarrassed to admit how I completely slept on Blue Highways when it was released in October of 2016.
I remember him promoting it on the slew of Canadian morning shows and whatnot, but the Jays were in the playoffs at the time and I told myself I would get to it later. Well, “later” happened to be January of 2022 after seeing it earn a price drop online. Although, the timing of its arrival into my world couldn’t be any more appropriate. Two weeks ago I declared Craig Northey as my latest hero for his contributions on Strippers Union’s The Undertaking, so… take a look at who is on rhythm guitar for Mr. James on most of this album:
Most people do not think of Colin James as a blues musician as he is best known for his rock hits in Canada, followed by his Brian Setzer Orchestra-ish swing revival side project “The Little Big Band”. But the blues has always been at the core of his music.
There are no original tunes on Blue Highways, which is a little disappointing to me, but James is a student of the genre and I do like how he dug deep into the catalogs of Blind Willie McTell, Peter Greene, and William Bell. I don’t think anyone needed another cover of Boom Boom or Hoochie Coochie Man. The most well-known track is probably Freddie King’s Going Down thanks to the TV Show Eastbound and Down.
The advantage to covers is shorter studio time. The idea for the album came about after James and his band had just finished a long tour and the mood struck them to lay down some tracks. I can think of no better reason for a blues album to come together. So, after just two days of recording, we have a strong “lightning in a bottle” vibe, which lends itself well to the genre.
Speaking of musicians, and while all are great here, I have to give a special shout-out to the excellent performance of Steve Marriner, who plays a killer mouth harp on about half of this album. I plan on checking out his band, MonkeyJunk as they have a great Black Keys/Big Sugar vibe that I need to explore.
As for James, he is pretty darn good too. His vocals might be on the thin side for the blues (As is Clapton’s, and SRV’s, IMHO) but James his guitar playing is what really shines here. His touch comes through the instrument with an incredibly powerful and warm tone on all forms of the blues he plays. Picking, slide, or acoustic. It is not flashy but has a ton of feeling. He is definitely a cut above the rest.
In many ways, Blue Highways reminds me of Eric Clapton’s From the Cradle. Both albums have a similar colour scheme for the sleeves and feature a solo rock artist returning to their musical roots. It would be awesome if James could stay there for a while and crank out a few more albums like this, but I suppose we will have to wait for another since rock does a better job of putting beans in the cupboard.