ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 10, 1992
The PNE isn’t normally the type of place you’d go to save money, but Vancouver blues-rock fans who paid just $7.50 (plus fair admission) to see guitar heroes Robert Cray, Jeff Healey, and Colin James last Thursday (September 3) got themselves a heckuva good deal. They also got to see a youthful Canadian axe-master outplay a fellow countryman and a Yank in a marathon Battle of the Strats.
After a brief opening set by some comedian I couldn’t hear from the beer garden, super-smooth American bluesman Cray took the stage with his new six-piece band. A personable performer with a soulful, lusty voice and a subtle, less-is-more approach to guitar, Cray quickly won the crowd over with familiar tunes such as “Strong Persuader” and “Smokin’ Gun”, and tempted them with new selections from his forthcoming album, I Was Warned. His classy, B.B. King-influenced style and funky brand of lovesick blues were a tasty appetizer for the rowdier things to come from Jeff Healey.
I’ve never seen Healey put on a poor show, and I don’t know anyone who has. The guy was just unreal, whether playin’ it pretty on the sultry hit “Angel Eyes” or raunching out on a dramatic, Hendrix-style rendition of “See the Light”, which earned him a standing ovation.
Unlike Cray, Healey takes the more-is-more approach, sitting down and sending out blues-drenched bolts of energized noise until he couldn’t help but leap up and shake his booty across the stage. I’ve said it before, so I won’t bother to mention that the sightless string-bender could use a stronger rhythm section to push himself to even higher heights.
Now Colin James—there’s a guy with a wicked rhythm section, in particular monster drummer Darrell Mayes. And iron-lunged saxman Johnny Ferreira was his usual stalwart self, sounding particularly sharp on the boisterous “Five Long Years”. With full use of the stage and lights, James delivered the kind of high-energy, party-time appeal he’s noted for, although it’s hard to appreciate him in an arena after seeing several of his Commodore gigs.
Having witnessed James holding his own with the awesome Carlos Santana at the Orpheum earlier this year, I don’t doubt his guitar-playing abilities, and the way he plays with equal parts finesse and flash. But on this particular occasion he didn’t conjure up the same magic as Healey, who easily walked away with the Guitar God of the Night trophy.