Vancouver blues-rocker James Grant is doing what he loves to do

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, APRIL 2, 1998

When veteran Vancouver guitar-slinger James Grant drops by the Georgia Straight office for a chat, he’s got a local gig set up that isn’t your typical Yale or Fairview blues happening. That night, Grant and his band are booked to play a private gig at Panama Jacks in the downtown Holiday Inn, a wrap party for the TV film The Inspectors, starring Lou Gossett Jr. Supposedly, Gossett heard the band’s self-titled CD being played down at the Drake, where it’s in regular rotation along with some fairly svelte hips. The blues-loving movie star was seen groovin’ to it by a staff member, who informed him who it was, and next thing you know James Grant & Small Mercies had a well-paying one-nighter lined up.

Who says this town’s titty bars don’t benefit the local music scene?

According to Grant, Gossett also has connections down at the House of Blues nightclub in L.A. and may get the band a gig there, which wouldn’t look bad on its résumé. The quartet has been turning influential heads ever since its debut at the Yale during last year’s Music West festival, which was attended by former Santana drummer Michael Shrieve, who currently works as an A&R rep (talent scout) for Seattle’s Gold Circle Records.

“That was pretty bizarre,” recalls Grant. “We did that gig and then a few days after it I got a phone call from Seattle and they were tryin’ to trace us down. I guess Music West has the numbers of everyone, so he got ahold of me and said he really liked the band and wanted to know what was goin’ on. I sent him a copy of the CD and he gave us a contact with Blind Pig and suggested we send it off to there.”

Shrieve’s advice did not lead to a recording contract, however. The response from San Francisco–based Blind Pig Records was that James Grant & Small Mercies were a tad “too bluesy” for them.

“We get that sometimes,” explains Grant with a sigh. “We get ‘You’re too bluesy’ or ‘You’re too rock.’ But everybody from the grass roots up, regular people listening, just say, ‘Wow, that sounds good.’ The problem we have is that obviously it’s not the trendiest music, but we’re doin’ what we love to do, put it that way.”

Grant has been making live rock pay the rent since the mid-’70s, when he was a member of hardworking cover band Zingo—this scribbler still harbours a hazy recollection of that group playing a beer-drenched UBC mixer back in ’77 or so. Grant’s lead-guitarist spot in that popular party band was taken over by Keith Scott, who eventually found fame and fortune as Bryan Adams’s stalwart picker. After Zingo, Grant slugged it out for years in other club-circuit cover bands, including Foxfire, which featured local fave Joanie Bye on vocals. That project got some local radio play in the early ’80s with an original song titled “Hollywood”.

When the time finally came for Grant to concentrate on the kind of music dear to his heart, he aligned himself with vocalist-bassist John Howard (a veteran of various Chicago and Minneapolis soul bands), drummer Frank “The Match” Dato (another Zingo survivor, whose credits include Gaye Delorme and Red Rider), and Hammond-organ ace Dave Webb (the Belairs, Nigel Mack). Jazz bassist Rick Kilburn produced the band’s CD at his East Van studio, and it’s a potent blues-rock offering that sees Grant going the fret-burning Gary Moore route, although instead of a Les Paul he does the damage with a Kinal Custom guitar, built by local luthier Mike Kinal. “I hate to say it, ’cause it sounds like sacrilege,” raves Grant, “but it’s better than any Les Paul I’ve ever played in my life.”

Local rock-guitar freaks can check out Grant and his volatile Kinal Custom when his band plays Studebakers as part of the CFOX Demo-Listen Derby next Thursday (April 9). It’s been a long time coming, but from the sound of things James Grant & Small Mercies are ready to take their best shot at the elusive rock crown.

“It’s not like we’re doin’ it just for fun on weekends,” stresses Grant. “After all the different projects we’ve all done, this is the first thing we put together that’s really what we want to do.”

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