Colin James shines bright on the talent-packed Limelight



By Steve Newton

On Limelight, his new, Juno Award-worthy CD, Colin James pulls off a sharp cover of Bob Dylan’s “Watchin’ the River Flow”, but the coolest thing about that track is what happens at the end of it. Just as the final strains of the 12-bar-blues number fade away, producer Colin Linden sneaks in some quick Dobro licks, then James responds by messin’ with the slide, and before you know it the whole band is heading into Muddy Waters Land.

As James explains on his cellphone from a West Van coffee bar, he was as surprised as anyone by the tune’s impromptu extension. “We finished the song and then just all launched into it,” he recalls with a laugh. “I think Colin started it out, and we all kinda followed behind. We were like, ‘We gotta cut it off!’, but we just couldn’t do it.”

Accompanying the two Colins on that 30-second detour to the Mississippi Delta-along with Bonnie Raitt bassist Hutch Hutchinson and pianist John Whynot-is famed drummer Jim Keltner. Noted for his work with Eric Clapton, John Lennon, and Ry Cooder, Keltner also performed on Dylan’s original version of “Watchin’ the River Flow”, from the 1971 Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 album. He rattled the skins on half of Limelight‘s 14 tracks during sessions in Nashville, making one wonder how it must have felt for James to be recording alongside the guy who played on Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs, not to mention “Imagine”.

“It was nothing short of wonderful for me,” he relates. “I’d worked with a lotta great drummers, but I don’t know if I’d ever seen anyone so-I guess quirky’s not the word-but prone to happy accidents, you know. He doesn’t tend to listen to stuff a lot; he listens to it once and you do it.”

Limelight‘s other timekeeping team was composed of ex-Odds drummer Pat Steward and bassist Doug Elliott, who laid down their rhythms at Bryan Adams’s Warehouse Studio in Gastown. Another former Odds-fellow, guitarist- vocalist Craig Northey, put his stamp on the CD with three cowriter credits, including the smouldering first single, “Far Away Like a Radio”.

Fellow Canuck tunesmiths Linden, Tom Wilson (Junkhouse, Blackie & the Rodeo Kings), and Colin Cripps (Crash Vegas) also loaned their compositional skills, much to James’s delight. Over the course of 10 albums, he’s learned that it often pays to collaborate with folks you’re familiar with.

“I used to go down to L.A. and write with people I didn’t know,” he explains, “people who had a trendy name because they had just sold a song to so-and-so. And it was always an expensive disaster. You’d go down there and spend six, seven thousand dollars, and you’d come back with nothing. It’s a compounding frustration, and it started to make me hate songwriting, to really loathe the whole process. But ever since I met Craig-who’s played with me for five years now-he’s really alleviated that.”

James didn’t rely too heavily on the songwriting abilities of his long-time associates on Limelight, though. Besides the Dylan cover, there’s a rendition of Rockpile’s “When I Write the Book” and two Van Morrison songs, the much-loved “Into the Mystic” and more obscure “It Fills You Up”.

According to James, Van’s the Man.

“I’d probably fly across the ocean to see him,” he says. “In fact, we just did a little two-week run of Spain and Switzerland and Belgium this summer, and I missed him by two days at every single venue. It seemed like every time I got to town he had just left, and that drove me a little crazy.”

James did manage to catch up to his elusive idol, however, when his wife surprised him with tickets to a recent Morrison gig at a winery near San Francisco. The show took place on Morrison’s 60th birthday, which was also James’s 40th, and if the cheery tone of his voice is any indication, life beyond that landmark is good. As well as having just released the most consistently impressive album of his career-which he’ll showcase at the Commodore Ballroom on Thursday (November 24)-he’s got it goin’ on in a family way.

Besides having a spouse who’ll secretly spring for wicked concert tix, James has a 10-year-old daughter who’s following in his musical footsteps, taking sax lessons from Steve Hilliam, whose soulful blowing illuminates four Limelight tunes. His seven-year-old son is also interested in music, but he’s taking more tentative steps toward a life in bluesy rock.

“My boy plays guitar,” the proud pop points out, “but he’s pretty hot into hockey and soccer.” Hey, if the littlest James would rather set his sights on helping the Canucks than scoring himself a bunch of Junos, that’s okay with me.

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