january 2011

Jim Byrnes:Singing with warmth and conviction, and sounding every bit in his element

All The Right Moves

By David McGee

Jim Byrnes
Black Hen Music

We most recently heard from veteran Canada-by-way-of-St. Louis bluesman Jim Byrnes via his terrific performances on, first, a Mississippi Sheiks tribute CD, Things About Comin’ My Way, in 2009, and more recently hitting a home run with his version of “Tell Me What The Cats Are Fighting About” on the DVD, The Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Concert—Live In Vancouver, both projects steered by his producer, Steve Dawson.

byrnesDawson and Byrnes reunite again, for a fourth time in fact, on the latter’s terrific new album, Everywhere West. Surrounded by a mostly acoustic ensemble augmented by a pump organ or Wurlitzer, a potent horn section and Daniel Lapp’s personable fiddling, Byrnes works what amounts to a blues variant on Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions project, substituting tunes by Lowell Fulsom, Bobby Blue Bland, Jimmy Reed and Robert Johnson (and his own originals) for the Seeger songbook and framing these in arrangements hearkening back to the small R&B combos of the post-WWII period (is it an accident that the setlist includes a Louis Jordan tune, albeit done in the Sheiks’ string band style rather than in Jordan’s jump blues form?). Byrnes revisits Sheiks territory proper early on via a jolly, old-timey take on “Bootlegger’s Blues,” a song about surviving in the face of armed pursuers. Bland’s “Yield Not To Temptation” gradually builds tension, starting out subdued and anxious before the emotional ante is raised with a gospelized background chorus, Dawson’s howling slide guitar and Chris Gestrin’s steadily percolating organ, all presaging a tougher vocal attack on Byrnes’s part when he returns to the fray. Almost at every turn it seems as if Byrnes and Dawson tried to counter expectations about what each song might sound like—“Yield Not To Temptation” is a 180 from Bland’s smooth, urbanized R&B, just as the buoyant and boisterous horn-fired, hip shaking arrangement of Robert Johnson’s “From Four Until Late”—complete with an altogether hilarious, jubilant Gestrin organ solo—serves to heighten the humor Johnson so expertly understates in his darker vocal-and-guitar version.

From the Mississippi Sheiks tribute album, Things About Comin’ My Way, Jim Byrnes performs ‘Jailbird Love Song,’ with producer Steve Dawson on guitar, Keith Lowe on bass and Geoff Hicks on drums.

Byrnes, with his gravely voice and economical blues guitar, eats it all up, singing with warmth and conviction, and sounding every bit in his element, whether moaning the deep, grinding Fulsom blues, “Black Nights,” affecting a Clapton-like sanguinity on Dawson’s easygoing, country-inflected shuffle, “Walk On,” or purposely summoning the spirit of Jimmy Reed by affecting Reed’s lazy, suggestive drawl in a most convincing manner, with Keith Bennett adding a familiar wailing harmonica and Dawson interjecting piercing slide discourse. Not least of the offerings here are some Byrnes originals—the sinister, malevolent thump that is “Storm Warning,” a foreboding vision of romantic malfeasance fueled by Byrnes’s plaintive predicting and enhanced by Daniel Lapp’s growling trumpet and Dawson’s stinging electric guitar work; and the album’s first and last cuts: respectively, the grinding, slide-enriched blues of “Hot As a Pistol” and a fictional autobiographical treatise set in Kansas City circa 1938, “Me and Piney Brown,” a slow, smokey blues inspired by the exploits of Big Joe Turner and “Roll ‘em” Pete Johnson at the height of the boogie woogie craze they pioneered; appropriately, Mike Kalanj takes a star turn here with his piano soloing, as if beckoning Johnson back to the 88s. (Turner’s “Piney Brown Blues” inspired a number of blues singers at that time; out in Brooklyn, a young man heard it and it changed the course of his life, serving as his siren song as he transformed himself from Jerome Felder into Doc Pomus, one of the great American songwriters of the 20th Century.) Originals or covers, Byrnes and Dawson make all the right moves on Everywhere West. Like Springsteen and his compadres on The Seeger Sessions, Byrnes and Dawson and all their friends don’t have a learning curve when it comes to this music—it’s about who they are. The joy they take in finding new avenues into its heart while respecting the compositions’ integrity is palpable, their gift to the artists who inspired this project and to those listening to what they have wrought.

Jim Byrnes’s Everywhere West is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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