SATURDAY, MAY 16 — From the roaring chainsaw guitars of hardcore punk, the swinging sounds of rockabilly, the greasy tones of hair metal and eventually the soulful roots of hard rock and blues, Craig Calvert — joined by his wife and musical partner Jan James — has had a ferociously diverse musical career.
Calvert and James’ latest effort as the Jan James Band, “Justify,” was released earlier this year in March and, like countless other artists, suffered the awful coincidence of being released amid the coronavirus pandemic. While the pair now resides in Chicago, and have experienced success touring Europe — building a devoted following in the Netherlands, of all places — their origin can be traced to a punk rock house party in East Lansing.
“I met Craig at a party at The Fix house,” James said. “I was hanging around Lansing, trying to figure out how to be a singer. It was a smaller scene back then. We just kind of tripped around the same places.”
Calvert’s first band, The Fix, unwittingly became trailblazers of hardcore punk in the early-’80s. One of the first to adopt the then-brand-new style in the Midwest, the band went on national tours and performed gigs with sacred punk groups such as Flipper, Black Flag and The Dead Kennedys. While Calvert is now recognized as a prodigious blues player, The Fix’s style called for brutally simplistic power chords with no guitar solos in sight. Original Fix vinyl releases fetch high prices among record collectors, helping solidify the band's cult-icon status.
“I grew up playing all of the R&B and Motown stuff coming out. I was really into bands like Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top and Aerosmith,” Calvert said. “Along came this new idea, and we picked up on it. We were doing it in Lansing, which was not the center of cool things happening. We were doing it in this isolated town. It wasn’t popular in the Midwest.”
The stress of touring and inexperience as fulltime musicians lead to the Fix’s untimely demise. Calvert needed a band, and James was performing weekly acoustic shows at various venues like Hobie’s and Old World.
“The thing with bands like The Fix, they’re hard to sustain because of the crazy energy,” Calvert said.
“I knew Craig was just kind of hanging around, I went to his place and said, ‘Hey I need a guitar player, want to come do this with me?’” James said.
Impressed by James’ vocal abilities, Calvert agreed to become her guitarist. And so the two began a romantic relationship and musical partnership that is still ongoing to this day. Calvert said their first shows together as a duo in the early ’80s were amusing because of the contrast created by fans of The Fix intermingling with the “button-down” regulars of Hobie’s.
“I was never one of those people that said, ‘You’re in a punk band, so you have to hate reggae!’ I always enjoyed a lot of different types of music, so it wasn’t hard for me to transition,” Calvert said.
“We’d play every Saturday night, and we’d pack that place,” James said.
Eventually, James and Calvert ended up in a rockabilly band called The Flying Tigers, along with Scott Allman, who later became host of the Capital City Blues Cruise on 94.9 WMMQ. The band is comparable to acts like The Stray Cats and The Cramps. High-quality footage is available on YouTube of the band performing a 1982 concert at Dooley’s in East Lansing when The Flying Tigers opened for legendary Los Angeles punk band X. James’ vocal talent in The Flying Tigers received some recognition by readers of the Detroit Metro Times, as she was voted “Best Female Vocalist.”
“It was fun,” James said. “We’d drink whiskey all night on a party bus with our punk friends and play a lot of shows in Detroit. But it was kind of ugly at the end.”
James and Calvert moved on from The Flying Tigers to form heavier, metal-inspired bands. The one that stuck around the longest and gave the couple the opportunity to finally move on from Lansing was known as Jewel Fetish. “Let’s call it a hair band. We were a lot like Spinal Tap,” James laughed.
Jewel Fetish attracted the attention of a wealthy, wannabe music producer from Chicago, whom James and Calvert requested not be named. As James and Calvert had little cash to themselves, the producer paid the two a salary and funded recording sessions at Royal Recorders in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
“He had a lot of money, and no brains at all. We wanted to get out of Lansing because we were supposed to be huge stars,” James said, with tongue firmly in cheek.
During Jewel Fetish’s residency at Royal Recorders, Calvert was a fly on the wall for the tracking sessions of several iconic glam metal records. Most notable was an experience where Calvert met Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, while the band was recording its self-titled debut album, which included singles such as “18 and Life” and “Youth Gone Wild.”
“Sebastian Bach was the big star. He had a lot of girls following him around. They came into the studio with a lot of fanfare. They cut the record with a party atmosphere and left, but we were living there — so we got to see how it was actually made,” Calvert said.
The residency at the studio was invaluable. Long nights watching producers mix albums taught Calvert and James recording techniques they would use for years to come.
“In the punk rock days, we just went into the room, drank a bunch of beer and hit ‘record.’ It was very raw,” Calvert said. “When we got this opportunity at the studio in Wisconsin with Jewel Fetish, we learned how to do things properly on a technical level.”
Burned out with Jewel Fetish at the turn of the ’90s, James and Calvert returned to their classic rock roots and began to perform simply as Jan James, the project in which they still record and tour with today. They released their first album, “Last Train,” in 1994 and have released records regularly ever since.
“We decided to write more rootsy music that we liked better anyway,” James said.
“It was a good change of pace, not having to spend all of that time on your hair,” Calvert added.
While the music James and Calvert released as Jan James found a home in the Chicago blues-rock scene — since the release of “Last Train” they’ve performed at venues such as Buddy Guy’s Blues Legends and the Chicago House of Blues — it was in Europe, and the Netherlands in particular, where their music really took off. “Last Train” caught the interest of Dutch record label Provogue, which released all of the Jan James albums until 2005, when Blue Palace Records picked up the group.
“We went over to Europe every couple of months and we’d have a great time,” James said.
“Over there, you’re treated more like an artist. I had always been treated like a few steps above a juvenile delinquent as a guitarist in the United States,” Calvert said. “Our label was out of the Netherlands, which was a really welcoming country that appreciates American music. I was a history major at Michigan State University, so being over in Europe and visiting all of its historic sites while working as an artist was really fascinating.”
“It felt like we were finally accepted,” James said.
Despite the coronavirus admittedly hindering their latest album, James and Calvert have gotten creative with ways to produce content, despite the lack of live gigs or European festival circuits on the horizon. They recorded a DIY music video for the title track, “Justify,” and are staying optimistic about the future of the band.
“It’s a tough time, but a lot of people have it worse than us,” James said.
“It’s a nightmare we’re all going through, and I don’t know how we get out of it. It really does blow, because we got the best reviews we've had so far on this record,” Calvert said. “If science catches up with this thing, there’s going to be a renaissance and a resurgence of people going to concerts.”
You can check out their latest album “Justify” at www.janjames.com