James Gray: Campfire Concert in Huntsville, ON

James Gray

The beauty of being a part of this close-knit community of writers and fans within the GDW family is the constant exposure to new artists and new music, whether from suggestions, recommendations, or simply chance encounters that one (or more) of us make along the way. I shall be ever grateful to GDW contributor Douglas McLean for introducing me to the music of Emsdale, ON singer-songwriter James Gray – a popular artist in the Muskoka region, and one we took pleasure in catching live for the first-time last summer during our vacation in the area.

Returning to the region again this summer, our plans did not initially include another round of live music from James Gray. But, when a completely random post from Muskoka Music Trail dropped into our social media feed to advertise Campfire Sessions taking place on select summer evenings, we saw that one such show fell during the weekend we were in town. Better still, fate clearly intervened, offering a show on the only open evening on our schedule that would feature music from – you guessed it – James Gray.

Naturally, it was impossible to turn down such an opportunity, and we very quickly found ourselves drawn to a campfire on a glorious summer’s evening out on the shore of Hunter’s Bay. Seated amongst an intimate crowd in a casual circle around the roaring fire (and watching the sun set to the west), we were joined by James and his acoustic guitar (no PA or microphone needed) who serenaded us for just a little under two hours with a fabulous mix of original tunes and popular covers.

James Gray

Kicking off the evening with a delightful cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Colorado Girl,” James was happy to discuss the inclusion of this particular tune to his set. “For the month of May and the beginning of June, I was in Switzerland and in Austria, and I was playing gigs and had a lot of fun,” he offered. “Every season I’ll typically pick a song that I’ll open with every time I play, and that’s the only thing that remains the same. I don’t really use a set list. I just do whatever feels right. But that’s a song I’ve opened with all summer, and it’s by a fella named Townes Van Zandt, a songwriter that I really adore.”

With a broad mix of covers that transcended several musical genres, James took time to share some tales behind the choices. One such moment came prior to a performance of “Bobcaygeon.” “It’s funny, The Tragically Hip, as Canadians we don’t really know who’s known sometimes outside of Canada and who isn’t,” he commenced. “And they’re not really too well known outside of Canada, but when I was away, I played this song every gig just to see how people would react, and it’s kind of interesting that they seemed to like it. So, it’s back to that whole music is universal thing, you know?”

James would demonstrate his fun and laid-back demeanor all evening, greeting passers-by with “You’re welcome to join, but the only condition is that you have to sing a song,” and stating that one of his unreleased tunes performed on this evening was his first attempt at a bluegrass song, but was “really just a James Gray song sped up.” And, in the blink of an eye, he would shift gears and tug at the heartstrings once more when discussing the inclusion of “Grandpa Was A Carpenter.” “My first memory of hearing music is of this song,” he recalled. “My dad had a 1993 Nissan Hustler, and we’d drive around and listen to tapes. That’s dating myself, eh? Tapes? And he had a John Prine tape, and we used to listen to songs and he’d let me drive. Drive! I’d sit on his lap and hold on to the steering wheel.”

James Gray

With the release of “New Friends That Talk Like Old Friends” last December, James shared plenty of tunes from this album throughout the evening. Unreleased songs that we’d enjoyed last summer, and now very much released, were performed once more – from the ode to beer that is “Goodbye Stella,” to the feel-good, singalong favorite, “Think About Me” (a song, he joked, that just ‘went plywood’). Having spent years honing his craft as a legitimate folk music troubadour, James mixed in self-penned tunes to steer the collective emotions of the crowd – from the tale of personal loss found in “Pete’s Song,” to the guaranteed smiles resulting from the comical lines of “Say Hi to Your Neighbour.”

As the sun disappeared, and the crackles and pops from the fire the only noticeable sound around once the sky turned black, James dug deep into his back catalogue to close out the evening with “The Lottery,” a track found on his 2013 “Home To Me” album. “This was one of the first batch of songs I ever wrote, and soon after I released it, I was embarrassed about it,” he shared. “But I find as I get older, I love them again. Those songs just are what they are that some 21, 22 years old kid wrote, and I sing them more now.” Pausing once more, James would add one final recollection before getting to the song. “So, this one’s a song called The Lottery, and I remember I went to Cuba and saw the way that folks lived, and talked to a few folks there and learned that it’s hard for them to leave, and if they leave, it’s hard for them to come back and every see their families again,” he stated. “I just feel that there’s a lot of entitlement in the western world, and I think life’s a lottery and we are born wherever we are born.”

Set List:

  1. Colorado Girl (Townes Van Zandt cover)
  2. What I’d Do
  3. The Sidelines
  4. Oo-De-Lally (Roger Miller cover)
  5. Untitled (unreleased new tune)
  6. In My Life (The Beatles cover)
  7. Temporary Smile
  8. Untitled (unreleased new tune)
  9. I’m On Fire (Bruce Springsteen cover)
  10. We’re Going To Be Friends (White Stripes cover)
  11. Goodbye Stella
  12. Think About Me
  13. February Seven (Avett Brothers cover)
  14. Bobcaygeon (Tragically Hip cover)
  15. Pete’s Song
  16. Grandpa Was A Carpenter (John Prine cover)
  17. Shoot The Shit (unreleased new tune)
  18. Say Hi To Your Neighbour (The Facebook Song)
  19. Sleepless
  20. Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash cover)
  21. My Own Advice
  22. House Of The Rising Sun (The Animals cover)
  23. The Lottery

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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