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Local entertainer loses sight, gains fans

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Local musician Ryan James is a master at delivering knockout covers of some of the best of 90s alternative rock. Submitted photo

He was just a teenager when he started learning how to play guitar, and it was only a few years ago he really learned how to sing, but what endears Ryan James to audiences is something that can't be taught.

"When I'm on stage, I get comfortable," he says. "It's like I'm home."

James will often kick off his shoes and settle in as if he were sitting in his living room, engaging his audience as if they were guests in his home. There is certainly nothing pretentious about the musician, whether he's on stage or off, and it's that authenticity that comes out in his performances and which has made him a hit with local audiences.

Someone watching James on stage really gets to know him. His performances are shot through with his forceful personality and he thrives on making a connection with the people who come out to see him, both through his music and his repartee.

"There's more banter than music sometimes," he says.

He is a unique individual, and an equally unique performer. Even the way he holds his guitar is unusual.

"Everybody thinks I play this way because I'm blind," he says.

Indeed, James lost his eyesight about six years ago, due to glaucoma caused by a lifelong autoimmune condition. But it was an arm injury, and not his blindness, that forced him to concoct a different posture for his guitar, which is nestled between his knees and shoved far to the left so he can get a proper angle on the strings.

"I had to develop a unique style of playing," he says.

It has certainly worked out. James has earned himself a loyal following on the local live music scene, and is a reliable draw when he performs at area pubs, festivals and community events. He often takes the stage by himself, but performs frequently as part of a duo as well, teamed up with guitarist Mark Lloyd. Sometimes, the pair is also joined by drummer David Glen Leslie, and the trio takes the stage as the Ryan James Band.

Whether he's alone or with friends, though, James' shows always feature a boisterous mix of alternative rock combined with a few choice 80s tunes and select songs from other genres that have appealed to the performer for one reason or another.

"I'm a 90s kid," he says. "I always say everybody's favourite style is whatever was playing when they were in high school."

He plays both acoustic guitar and electric and alters his approach to the songs depending on who, if anyone, is on stage with him, noting that a solo performance can sound quite different than a show by the Ryan James Band.

James' vocal style has often been likened to that of J.R. Richards, the lead singer of 90s alternative rock band Dishwalla, some of whose hits have found their way onto James setlist. James voice and style didn't come naturally to him, though. He had to work at it.

It was way back when he was 14 years old that he first noticed his brother playing guitar and learning the classical approach. James thought the instrument not without interest, and picked it up. Little did he know as he dragged his hand across the strings just how important the instrument would come to be to him.

"I haven't put it down since," he says.

For most of his life, playing the guitar was more than enough for him. Perhaps he'd sing occasionally for his own amusement, but the guitar was really all he needed. Several years ago, though, it occurred to him that he might be able to say even more with his music, and he set about practicing his vocals.

"I just kept trying and trying. I'd keep learning different styles of songs and listening to the way they were singing and try to do what they were doing," says James.

Again, it worked out well.

Then he started posting some of those practice sessions to Facebook, just to get some idea of what people thought of him. All the comments were positive, mostly from friends and acquaintances, but the postings attracted the attention of someone else as well, someone who would become a very important person in James' life.

It was Bobby Orr, the organizer of Brockville's annual Ribfest, one of the largest community events in this region. He thought James would be a great addition to the event's musical line up and offered him what would be his first official public gig. That was 2016, and James has played Ribfest every year since. He still counts it as one of his favourite venues and continues to hold its organizer in very high esteem.

"Without knowing it, he has been like a big brother to me, mentoring me with my music through the years," says James. "I look up to that guy a lot."

James is also most grateful to several local publicans who continue to give him the opportunity to reach an audience, as he appears frequently at several places around Brockville, including the Georgian Dragon, Spitfire Cafe, Barley Mow and Richard's Cafe.

It was at the Keystorm Pub, though, that James had one of his more important performances. And it wasn't even his own show. It was an open mic night, when he was just starting out. He figured he'd get up and try a song in front of what he realized was a fantastic group of musicians, and it was there that he first came to befriend his frequent musical collaborators - Lloyd and Leslie - as well as multi-instrumentalist and singer Amanda Keeley.

"It's a good place," says James of the Keystorm. "It's always packed, and it's always full of music."

No doubt one of his most memorable performances was a couple years ago at the 1000 Islands Regatta, where he opened for the acclaimed Canadian hard-rock band The Trews in front of a massive crowd of enthusiastic fans.

"That was pretty big for me," remembers James. "I was just solo on this giant stage, just me and my guitar before this huge band came on."

Most of the time, when James gets up on stage, it's to cover songs by other artists, big time rock bands and their well-known music, and that's always been and continues to be something he loves to do, but he also writes his own material. James was only 16 years old when he grew a little tired for a time of practicing other people's songs and thought he might try writing one of his own. He's been writing ever since.

Some of his original material can be found on Spotify and on Apple Music, including a mini-album called 'Sole' that features two tracks from an upcoming full-length release that as yet does not have a title. Many of the songs are finished, though. He's been working on the album for about a year, and suspects it will take about as long to complete it.

The record is being produced at The Powder Room in Brocville by Randy Orr, well-known as one half of the renowned local band Healy and Orr, and while it's a solo album, it will have a full band sound and will feature the talents of a host of local musicians, such as Mark Bergman and others of James' colleagues in the local music scene.

"There's a lot of talent in this town that people don't know about," says James.

Like his setlists, James' album is to be a blend of genres and styles. Fans will see hints of Moist and Imagine Dragons, along with confident combinations of hard rock, alternative and even some folk.

"The song I'm working on right now sounds like a mash between the Imagine Dragons and Pink Floyd," says James.

All the songs on the album, indeed all the songs he writes, are personal and meaningful to James, which is why fans are less likely to hear them performed live. James admits to being a little more shy playing his own material in front of an audience. It's likely also why, when composing a song, the music comes rather more easily to him than do the lyrics.

He will occasionally slip an original song into his setlist during a live performance, just to see what fans think, but when fans will next get the chance to see a live performance by James or by any other local artist is up in the air at present due to the global coronavirus pandemic and the resultant shutdown of all the music venues in the region.

There is one performance, though, that James hopes not to miss. One day, while he was playing in the backyard, a neighbour asked if the speakers might be turned so that he could hear the songs better, and since then James has picked a day in the summer to bring the full band to his backyard and put on a proper performance for the neighbourhood, something he hopes to do again this season.

"Every now and then I like to take it outside so they can hear it nice and clear and to give them a good show and say thanks."

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