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Music Review: Jim Byrnes – Everywhere West

I have a love of history but there are massive gaps in my knowledge of it.  I know very little of Canada’s history beyond Norsemen and Vikings – probably – John Cabot, French fur trappers, and then one day it’s a country made up of provinces.  I have no doubt world culture and music have been influenced by famous, talented Canadians and I’m ignorant and unaware of them.  I don’t know what musics are native to my neighbors to the north. 

I bring this up because while jazz and blues are widely recognized as American musical idioms — overwhelmingly African and African-American in their roots – the blues is, as Watermelon Slim said at the Blues Music Awards a few years back – “a culture without borders.”  It has been for many decades and continues to be but I still find it inspiring that an idea that started small and regionally has been embraced and studied worldwide to a degree where authentic blues music can emanate from any point on the globe.

Jim Byrnes is a St. Louis native but has been part of Canada’s musical landscape for years but the beauty of his latest album Everywhere West is that it evokes spirits that transcend nationalities and origins.  This is a modern antiquity, mixing traditional songs and pieces written by musical legends as well as original material.

The sonic template reminds me of Otis Taylor’s excellent Clovis People, Vol. 3 with the roots-oriented, mostly acoustic sounds and the way horns are used.  Horn sections have been part of blues bands forever but Byrnes and producer Steve Dawson don’t use them in the loud, honking, nasty manner so often employed in the idiom.  At the risk of continuing to make too much of geography, it feels a little like St. Louis.  The city has a rich musical heritage in jazz, blues, and rock and roll and some of those ghosts linger in these arrangements, adding delicious accents to the bedrock rustic sounds.

Byrnes and his collaborators give a sensational performance of Lowell Fulsom’s “Black Nights,” and it is one of the album’s highlights. Fulsom recorded many great sides for Chicago’s Chess Records but unlike most of the legends who recorded for that label he was allowed to record on his own outside the Windy City.  Byrnes adopts some of that West Coast, big city blues sound  without completely losing the roots sound heard elsewhere on the record and Dawson lays down a vibrant slide guitar solo.  On the original “Storm Warning,” Daniel Lapp’s mournful trumpet cries and despairs as Byrnes’ gruff-yet-pleasing vocal tells the story of trouble on the horizon.  Dawson adds banjo, acoustic, and electric guitar and everything comes together like a storm front whipping across the plains.  Byrnes adjusts his gravelly tone to give Jimmy Reed’s “Take Out Some Insurance On Me” a little Texas twang and Keith Bennett blows some hot harmonica.

Everywhere West is an appropriate name for a record that sounds big enough to swallow a listener whole yet it’s still small enough to play to a small room and a table for one.  Go west, listeners, go west and give this album your time.

About Josh Hathaway

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