It should come as no surprise that many blues singers and performers supplement their income with what are euphemistically called "day jobs." Jim Byrnes, when he isn't adapting all that he learned in his St. Louis youth by sneaking into bars and catching such blues greats as Jimmy Reed and Henry Townsend, works as a professional actor. You may remember him from the TV series Wiseguys or Highlander: The Series. He has also lent his voice to dozens of cartoon episodes.
In his early 20s, Byrnes lost both his legs above the knee while trying to help move a stalled truck; after that, he moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, and made a name for himself as a blues musician and, eventually, an actor. Byrnes has been more prolific in recent years. Everywhere West is the 5th album he’s released since 2001, with only three to his credit in the 20 years before that. As he’s done since 2004's Fresh Horses, Byrnes is working again with his fellow Canadian blues guitarist/producer Steve Dawson. The two of them show no fear when it comes to tackling classics of the blues past, styles only peripherally related to blues as we often think of the genre, or original material strong enough to match the masters.
Jim Byrnes' Everywhere West
Three of the album's 12 songs are composed in whole or in part by Byrnes. "Hot As A Pistol" kicks the album with a nicely simmering, slow-grinding blues. Over Chris Gestrin's tasty organ fills and Dawson’s impeccable slide guitar, Byrnes growls "Hot as a pistol, cool as a homemade sin," and we're ready to see where he's taking us on this record. "Storm Warning," which Byrnes co-wrote with Tim Hearshey, is another slow number. Byrnes isn't exactly the first to use a storm metaphor for the state of a relationship, but he wins us over with the rhythmic playfulness of his vocals, and the glee with which he announces he’s moving on away from this situation at the end.
"Me and Piney Brown" ends the album with a delightful autobiographical remembrance of a youthful trip to Kansas City where he encountered Joe Turner bartending and singing the song referenced in the title. It's an altogether more romanticized vision of Turner than that given in Dave Alvin's 2009 tribute song "Boss of the Blues." Dawson’s "Walk On" showcases the producer's ability to play six different instruments, with gorgeous interaction between his overdubbed pedal steel lines and the National tricone resonator guitar. Byrnes adjusts nicely to the loping groove, and gently sings about moving on with his life.
The hints of country music in this cut are full-blown in three traditional songs from the Appalachian hills. "Bootlegger's Blues" and "No Mail Blues" probably didn't have that magic word in their titles when they were first sung, but gained it in the 1920s and '30s when blues was a concept divorced from its common form and wedded to a lot of folk and country songs. "Bootlegger's Blues" benefits from some excellent fiddle and mandolin by Daniel Lapp and Dawson's delightful banjo picking. For "No Mail Blues," Dawson shines on the Dobro, while the multi-talented Lapp doubles on fiddle and trumpet.
Byrnes obviously has a blast singing this kind of material, and it fits well with the earthier songs on the rest of the album. "He Was a Friend of Mine" is familiar to Byrds fans, but Byrnes, aided by harmony vocalist Jeanne Tolmie, makes the traditional ballad his own. Two of the most familiar blues songs here are among the album's biggest highlights. Lowell Fulsom's "Black Nights" benefits from tight horn arrangements and some subtle shadowing harmony from Tolmie; Byrnes sings the song in two ways, with a sense of pure delight when he remembers the good times, and a real sense of frustration when he ponders the current black nights of loneliness. Dawson gives this song perhaps his best slide guitar solo here, using few notes to maximum effect, letting them sustain or carefully swooping them along with his slide, building an intensity which eventually fades back down for Byrnes to return on vocals.
Jimmy Reed & Robert Johnson
Jimmy Reed's "Take Out Some Insurance On Me" is a rare thing among Reed covers as Byrnes perfectly captures the laconic drawl which makes Reed so original. Keith Bennett also matches the master with a tasty harp solo.
Mistakes do happen, though. Perhaps it was a bold idea to try to imagine a Robert Johnson cover with no trace of the fear and loathing inherent in the original, but putting "From Four Until Late" into a quasi-Dixieland mode doesn't work well at all. Some things should be tried, but not necessarily shared. Louis Jordan's "You Can’t Get That Stuff No More" is more of a mixed bag, shifting the jump blues of the original into a similarly neo-trad feel, but with a stunning National tricone sound added to it. Byrnes, however, can't quite capture Jordan's original wink, though, which takes a lot of the fun away from the song.
Steve's Bottom Line
With a lifetime of listening to and playing the blues, Jim Byrnes has ideas aplenty bouncing around in his brain. With the aid of Steve Dawson, Byrnes is capable of trying just about anything even vaguely related to the blues field. Everywhere West isn't perfect, but it's good enough to recommend he quit his day job, if that day job wasn't just as cool as making music is. (Black Hen Music, released November 16, 2010)
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