By Stephen Guppy
A full house of about 800 blues fans turned out at Nanaimo’s waterfront Port Theatre on a warm early-fall evening to welcome back Canadian blues maestro Colin James and to get acquainted with Texan phenom Ally Venable.
Nanaimo, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, is a mid-sized city on Vancouver Island, a 90-minute ferry ride from North Vancouver, where Colin James makes his home. It’s a town with a vibrant blues scene highlighted by weekly jams at the historic Queen’s Hotel and an annual summer festival that brings in major-league talent such as Walter Trout, Rick Vito, Anthony Gomes, and Kid Ramos.
Colin James is, of course, something of a legend among Canadian blues aficionados, and the chance to see him kick off his first post-pandemic Canadian tour was a can’t-miss occasion for his many local fans. James has won eight JUNO awards, 27 Maple Blues Awards and his latest and 20th album is Open Road released in 2021.
For this latest edition of the Colin James band, James has assembled an impressive crew of side-men, including Hamilton, Ontario, keyboardist Jesse O’Brien and second guitarist Chris Caddell. O’Brien, whose other projects include Lee Harvey Osmond, shone on both organ and electric piano; his piano work was one of the highlights of the evening, providing a barrelhouse counterpoint to James’ guitar wizardry. Caddell, from Big Wreck and Sass Jordan’s band, stayed in the background for most songs, but he made good use of his solo spots, his bottleneck work being particularly enjoyable.
As the evening progressed, I found myself focusing on the thunder emanating from Derrick Brady’s Fender bass. While he provided rock-solid support for his band-mates and didn’t feel the need to show off, his playing was consistently melodic and subtle.
James kicked off the set with an old favourite, “Voodoo Thing”, from his 1988 debut album, before making his way through an eclectic smorgasbord of covers and originals from Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” to a Stevie Ray Vaughan instrumental, a slow blues out of the Magic Sam songbook, his popular anthem “Freedom”, and even a brief reincarnation of Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway”.
Colin James is an impressive guitarist, conjuring up a rich, creamy tone reminiscent of Otis Rush and Magic Sam from each of his multitude of axes. (By my count, he used two Les Pauls, an ES-335, a couple of Danelectros, which he seems to prefer for bottleneck, and no less than three Strats—his guitar tech was kept hopping all night.) He is also a hard-working showman, prancing across the stage and taking the occasional expedition through the crowd while ripping off one flawless solo after another. I’d forgotten how impressive a vocalist he can be: he makes effective use of his considerable range while keeping a bluesy feel to the material.
James kept his inter-song raps brief and interesting, and one song flowed quickly into the next with a minimum of dead air. The crowd showed its appreciation with frequent yips and yelps and a hearty round of applause after each song and solo.
Opening act Ally Venable belongs to the new generation of female blues guitarists who have greatly enriched the genre over the past several years. Given her skill and charisma, she belongs in the company of better-known ladies of the blues such as Ana Popovic, Sue Foley, and Samantha Fish, all of whom have performed in Nanaimo in recent years. She’s equally at home with wah-wah laden blues-rock and more lyrical slow blues, and she demonstrated her mastery with a lengthy instrumental tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan.
The one disappointing aspect of the concert was the brevity of Venable’s set: she had about half an hour to work with and consequently only had time for a few songs. Presumably, the intention was to provide blues fans with a chance to meet an artist they may not be aware of; that’s always a good idea, but those of us who already know Venable’s work from her well-received albums would have liked to hear more of their favourite songs. I’m hoping Venable will be back in town before too long.
Colin James’ tour continues across the prairies to Ontario, and Ally Venable will be along for at least some of those dates before embarking on a swing through Europe in November. If you have a chance to catch either or both of these artists live and in person, grab it.
Watch “Going Down” Colin James & Ally Venable
(Thanks to cheaptrickster for the video)
For more information on Colin James see here
For more information on Ally Venable see here.