Despite its sturdy structure, the blues isn’t a musical format that lends itself to a great deal of innovation. Too much messing around seems to diminish the music’s emotional kick. Enter Vancouver-based Jim Byrnes, who here delivers yet another masterpiece firmly within the blue spectrum. Yet while Everywhere West is traditional in approach, Byrnes and producer/guitarist Steve Dawson craft a sound quite unlike any other.
An accomplished actor, Byrnes as vocalist makes the most of every line, with an intuitive understanding of dramatic delivery that’s enhanced by the natural soulfulness of his burly, gruff pipes. He also contributes guitar to the project, but it’s Dawson who’s primarily responsible for the remarkable arrangements and decidedly unusual instrumentation.
Dawson, one suspects, has never met a stringed instrument he couldn’t master with effortless ease. In addition to superbly atmospheric slide, he’s responsible for an array of musical contributions on numerous guitars (acoustic and electric) as well as banjo, pump organ, and obscurities like the marxophone, mellotron, and mandotar. He also wrote the horn arrangements that add a brassy punch to several tracks. Also of note are the contributions of fiddler/trumpeter Daniel Lapp, another frequent collaborator of both Byrnes and Dawson. They’re augmented by a crack band anchored by bassist Keith Lowe and drummer Geoff Hicks, with guests filling in the sound as required. (Background vocalist Jeanne Tolmie is particularly effective on a handful).
Mixing time-tested standards with well-crafted originals, Byrnes pays tribute to, as he puts it, “those who’ve gone before,” with tunes from the likes of Lowell Fulson (“Black Nights”), Jimmy Reed (“Take Out Some Insurance On Me,”) and Robert Johnson (a rollicking “From Four Until Late”). Originals, including leadoff “Hot As A Pistol,” and the autobiographical “Me And Piney Brown” that closes the disc, fit seamlessly into a playlist that features several traditional tunes, including “Bootlegger’s Blues,” “No Mail Blues,” and “He Was A Friend Of Mine,” all given string-band-style treatments reminiscent of a modern-day Mississippi Sheiks. (Both Byrnes and, in particular, Dawson were integral to the musical success of a recent Sheiks tribute disc, also on Black Hen).
Arrangements are uniformly dense but never seem cluttered; there’s lots going on, whether it’s the busy snare that propels the New Orleans-style romp of “Four Until Late” or the moody menace both implicit and explicit on Byrne’s own “Storm Warning.” But Dawson and company know it’s the song that matters most, and instrumentation plays a supporting role rather than dominating the compositions. There’s an old-timey feel thanks to the acoustic layers – banjo and muted trumpet – but Dawson’s skilled production touches and distorted electric guitar bring tradition into the modern age, and the overall impression is contemporary with a healthy respect for the past.
If there is indeed a “River Of Song” that flows through time and connects us all, Everywhere West is an essential stop along the way, blending blues and gospel and strIngband music together in ways that respect origins while showing just how relevant it remains and how contemporary it can be.
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