“Music is like a medicine,” says six-time Juno Award-winning singer Colin James, who performs on Wednesday at Red Deer’s Memorial Centre.
If so, then his torchy Hearts on Fire album could prove a soothing elixir for what ails the troubled heart.
Words like “love,” “heart” and “heartbreak” turn up with frequency on his soulful new release — so much so that James admitted he has to watch his set list at concerts, lest fans start wondering about his personal life. (For the record, he been married for 23 years to the same woman. “We’ve known each other for 25,” said the Vancouver-based performer, with a chuckle. “I just happen to like lonely, sad sounding music. …)
Although he also enjoys “stuff that rocks,” James is closely drawn to “yearning, plaintive” melodies — like those that infuse many bluesy tunes on Hearts on Fire, his 16th album. Some critics are hailing it as one of the finest in his 27-year career, and the Regina native finds that a very nice thing to hear.
“I’m glad that people are enjoying it,” said James, because the recording is long overdue.
He had wanted to make a “softer,” more relaxed sounding CD when he got signed to EMI Records just before the label merged with Universal Music three years ago. “Because I was known as a rocker and this was a new label, they wanted me to put out another rock and blues record” — which is what he did with his 2012 release. Fifteen was the third blues-rock album James put out in a row, and he was itching to do something different this time.
“You have to follow your instincts,” he said, so Hearts on Fire became the reflective album he’d been wanting to make in 2012. He believes the long delay and the extra planning time paid off with a strong lineup of songs.
With his friend and producer Colin Linden, James created a sonically cohesive CD that fans can listen to from start to finish, without the mood shifting drastically in the middle. “I didn’t want anyone to have to run across the room when the three rock songs came on. I wanted to be able to put (the album) on and leave it on.”
Hearts on Fire was recorded in Nashville, so has a sparse, country vibe. There’s also something subterranean about the sound that brings New Orleans to mind. James believes it’s the influence of some musicians who perform on the album, including drummer Willie Weeks, who hails from the Big Easy and has played with Eric Clapton, Chaka Khan and Bob Dylan.
“It has a lot of economy, space,” said James of the CD, crediting Linden with its spontaneous, understated feel. Linden (of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings) “likes to leave a lot of stuff like it is,” added the 50-year-old singer/guitarist. This is particularly felt on the title track, which was recorded exactly as it was played in the studio.
But even James’s cover of Rihanna’s torch song Stay is so spare and unorchestrated that the familiar tune is hard to place at first. He said he recorded Stay because “people didn’t expect it of me.” He began doing his own acoustic version of the song at concerts because he loved the beautiful lyrics and gorgeous, subtle chord changes.
That tune will lend itself to James’s acoustic concert in Red Deer. He will perform here as a duo with his friend and fellow guitarist Chris Caddell.
The stripped-down experience will give James’s fans another vantage point from which to appreciate his music. Although some electric guitars will be used, Linden admitted the listeners’ attention will be more focused on song lyrics. As a result, even some of his hits — Five Long Years, Voodoo Thing, Why’d You Lie, Just Came Back and Breakin’ Up the House — will sound different and fresher.
“There will be more chance for me to talk about the songs and banter with the audience. It’ll be much more intimate,” said James.
“I love it. I really enjoy these shows.”
Since opening for the legendary Stevie Ray Vaughan in the late 1980s, James has performed around the continent, sharing stages with Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Luther Allison, Keith Richards, Lenny Kravitz, ZZ Top, Mavis Staples, John Hammond Jr., the Chieftains, Carlos Santana, Little Feat, Buddy Guy and many others.
He was inducted in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2013. Besides his Junos, he has won 17 Maple Blues Awards over the years.
Tickets to the 7:30 p.m. concert are $53.42 from the Black Knight Ticket Centre.