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Music Review: Jim Byrnes – My Walking Stick

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Vancouver-based Jim Byrnes, an accomplished actor in addition to his award-winning musical activities, returns with another eclectic collection that draws material from all over the map, yet remains firmly rooted in blues and gospel.

Again produced by multi-instrumentalist and compadre Steve Dawson, My Walking Stick is a follow up of sorts to 2006s House Of Refuge, which garnered rave reviews and numerous awards. Byrnes again delves into such meaty fare as life and death, love, sin and redemption, aided by Dawson’s echoey, often downright spooky production.

He kicks it off in fine style with the understated country blues of “Ol Rattler,” a chugging original dense with the dust of ages; “Walk On Boy,” with its subtle banjo and clanging chains, tells an equally timeless tale of slavery and salvation. “My Walking Stick,” a jaunty ditty from no less a luminary than Irving Berlin, has been recorded by Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers – here it’s given a richly textured treatment to compliment Byrnes’ insouciant delivery.

Byrnes and Dawson are nothing if not inventive, so neither “Looking For A Love” nor the Band’s “Ophelia” bear much resemblance to familiar versions. The former, a minor hit for the J. Geils Band back in the 70s, here sounds more like the Valentinos’ 1962 original with a delightful blend of R&B and doo-wop, while “Ophelia” is both stripped and slowed down to a soulful, melodic ballad with gently rollicking choruses for contrast.

Elsewhere there’s traditional gospel (a back-to-back “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today” and “I Want My Crown,” both enlivened by heavenly harmonies from The Sojourners) and R&B (“Lonely Boy Blue (Danny’s Song),” “I’m Living Off The Love You Give,” and a straight-to-church “Drown In My Own Tears”), with The Sojourners again providing backing on all. Byrnes penned the menacing and defiant “Six Words” and the almost apocalyptic “One Life (Creole Poetry),” a moody meditation on the mysteries of love and life, remembrance and death, which serves as a stunningly effective closer.

In truth there’s not a weak moment on the album, though it’s the type that takes a couple of spins to sink in.  Byrnes is a great singer in a classic, gritty blue-eyed soul vein, and Dawson’s production, atmospheric and full of unexpected twists, is brilliant but never obtrusive – every tune seems like a revelation, a different way to hear familiar forms.

With care and craft evident at every turn, Byrnes has created a low-keyed masterpiece, a fascinating and endlessly intriguing collection that sounds better and better with each listen.  This one’s essential!

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