REVIEW: COLIN JAMES – MILES TO GO (2018)

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In recent years, as I have been to more and more blues gigs (you can blame the fact I heard Sloe Gin about a decade ago) I’ve noticed an interesting thing happening. I am no longer the oldest one at the show. And its ace (you can also say the same for folk music).

It seems entirely appropriate to mention that here, with the new Colin James album. For a kick off it continues his journey back to the blues, began on 2016’s “Blue Highways” (number one in his homeland). For a second, it sounds so steeped in the blues that knows its place in the lineage, and for a third, as James himself notes when talking about “Miles To Go”: [blues]“is the only genre where you can maintain a young profile at the age of 53.”

Most of this is covers, primarily because he dug out his old Gibson guitar – the one he used to play as a kid – and just fell in love with the music again.

And possibly the best thing about “Miles To Go” is the warmth on offer across its tracks. Bookended by its title cut (both the full band and acoustic versions are here) and there is something smoother than Muddy Waters, perhaps. The horn section gives it a feel of Southside Johnny, or the Jersey Boardwalk that I have always loved. Another Muddy track, “Still A Fool” follows and there is something of the primal urge here  – and further discussion as to James’ merits as a guitarist isn’t required after this one, as well as the harmonica and organ being just about perfect here, as James has found a damn fine band.

“Dig Myself A Hole” is a soul-filled and comes in with strangely prescient lyrics, suggesting the world might have always been going to hell in a handbasket, while the take on Howlin’ Wolf’s proves that with this collection, James is one of the great interpreters of tunes.

“Black Night” has the air of the end of the night, when you’re alone at the end of the bar and the straightening the chairs around you. Rather less prosaically, with its tinkling pianos and jazz flavour it is a reminder that once upon a time Colin James was at the vanguard of the so-called swing revival – before the heart-wrenching solo reminds what he is now.

“Soul Of The Man” is swampy and straight out of the delta, and gives the traditional theme a fresh coat of paint. This is not all about making the old sound up to date, though. “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” sticks to its roots more than most here.

Years back I heard Joe Cocker do “I Need Your Love So Bad” and thought that was the definitive version. The one here keeps the feel, but adds a fragility too, while we’re back at the crossroads for “Tears Come Rolling Down” – and this one is a long way from Robert Johnson’s too, with the band in full flight here.

There are two original tunes. “I Will Remain” has the sort of vibe that King King do when they turn the throttle down, it is absolutely gorgeous, “40 Light Years” is an unashamed pop song too, and all the better for it.

The reason this scores so well is because it knows of the roads the greats trod, but also that the new breed – even at 53 – have to carry the baton. As Colin James puts it: “blues has always been a pass it forward kind of thing.”

It is, but on this evidence, both the genre and James himself still have “Miles To Go.”

Rating 8/10

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