“Welcome to our living room,” Colin James told 600 Central Alberta fans, as he settled into a chair next to tatty lamp on Red Deer’s Memorial Centre stage.
The Wayne’s World ambiance of that fringed lamp set the mood for a relaxed, homey concert on Wednesday night, featuring the blues-rocker and accompanying guitarist Chris Caddell of Toronto.
With a career spanning nearly three decades, James took the crowd back to his salad days, when many of his performances were for change in front of a liquor store on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive.
“I was 18 years old and as broke as broke could be,” having just finished a tour, he recalled, when he ran into his first girlfriend. They had split up because he was focusing on music. “It was a time to keep rollin’ or a time to hang up your hat,” recalled James. “And that was a keep-rollin’ situation. …”
The nostalgic song that came out of that chance encounter — Five Long Years — became one of the 50-year-old singer’s first radio hits.
James’s acoustic version of it, with fans singing the chorus of “You know I still love you/ You knew I’d never change,” heightened the heart-tugging quality of the lyrics. And the old hit got a huge audience reaction.
The Regina native, whose raspy, blues-tinged voice is as strong as his famed guitar playing, pulled another story from early in his career: He was signed to Virgin Records in 1988, and flown to meet with a famous producer who recommended he record some tunes written by American songwriter Jerry Lynn Williams.
“I was a 20-, 21-year-old who wanted to follow my own ideas,” said James. He never listened to the tape of Williams’ songs.
But he ended up hearing them, anyway, a few months later — when they became hits for Eric Clapton.
“This is one of those songs that I didn’t do,” said a slightly sheepish James, who went on to sing Running On Faith, a stirring, looking-for-love tune.
While more stories would have been appreciated in that intimate setting, James and Caddell allowed their instruments do most of the talking.
The accomplished musicians jammed for the near full-house crowd on a revolving series of acoustic and electric guitars. And they seemed to push themselves and each other to pull off some thrilling feats of duet playing — with or without a harmonica.
Tunes from James’s new album, Hearts on Fire, were performed, including the Bill Withers cover Heartbreak Road, the quiet Dreams Come and Go and Just A Little Love, with chugging, boogie-woogie guitars.
Caddell, who started the concert with a couple of solo numbers, My End and Come Back Down, was the perfect duo partner. He helped James create some interesting harmonies, vocally and instrumentally.
The two guitarists jammed on older material, including the soulful southern song National Steel, Man’s Gotta Be a Stone, and the hits On My Way Back to You and Why’d You Lie?
James also sang some great blues covers, including Muddy Waters’ Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan’s Watch the River Flow, Sam Cooke’s clap-along Somebody Have Mercy, Taj Mahal’s She Caught the Katy, Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic, and perhaps most remarkably, a killer version of Stay. The six-time Juno Award-winner stated that he recorded the Rihanna song on his new album because “people didn’t expect it of me.”
After a 27-year career, it’s amazing that James still aims to surprise his fans.
That kind of effort deserves a standing ovation — and the musicians got one.