The blues is a dynamic art form, always changing and evolving, but also very much tethered to its past. If you stray too far from the history of the blues, the music becomes something else, be it rock or metal or some form we’ve yet to name. The weight of the blues genre can be challenging for an artist to navigate. Which is why you have to tip your hat to singer/guitarist Colin James, who covers some beloved blues numbers on Miles to Go, his 19th album. He doesn’t give himself an easy task.
James had an interesting path to the blues, starting with rock and swing before finally getting to record his beloved blues in 1997. He’s kept his hands in all of those genres, but Miles to Go is the second of a two-part blues cover project he began with 2016’s successful Blues Highways.
Miles to Go‘s best moment is James’ cover of Muddy Waters’ “Still a Fool.” James keeps the shockingly contemporary riff of the original but plays it over a funky groove. He throws in some Hendrix guitar and suddenly it sounds like a new song. It would, of course, be sacrilege, to ever even think someone had done better than Waters, but it’s safe to say James found a compelling take on an old favorite.
Another nice moment is “I Need Your Love So Bad,” a smooth, slow blues with some tasteful guitar work. Jesse O’Brien provides some beautiful organ and piano while James croons, the song flirting with jazz but remaining solidly bluesy. A strong horn section, perhaps a vestige of James’ swing work, strategically lifts the song, creating a solid, lovely track.
James is a laid-back, comfortable performer, but that style doesn’t work for all of the tracks. James sometimes smooths over the more overt emotion of the originals. For instance, his cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man” reimagines the song as more of an acoustic pop number and while it’s catchy, it lacks the spectral intensity of Johnson’s original, which feels like it’s coming to you through a Ouija board.
James deserves a lot of credit for tackling sacred tunes. One has the sense that while part of the reason is to share his interpretations of these beloved songs, another reason is to send fans back to the originals. It makes sense that James, someone from western Canada, would have a different take on songs written by men from the American south. Despite the differences in time and geography, James still finds some nice moments.
Artist: Colin James
Title: Miles to Go
Label: Stony Plain Records
Release Date: September 21st, 2018
Running Time: 43:23
*Feature image James Omara