Jim Byrnes Busts Out of the Blues



FOR MANY VANCOUVER music fans, the name Jim Byrnes brings to mind a laid-back blues veteran, grizzled yet hip, weaving soulful tales with his smoky voice, slipping in subtle slide-guitar bits here and there. The actor-musician’s latest CD, Fresh Horses, doesn’t abandon his patented sound, but it also offers a whole lot more.

For the first time, Byrnes recorded with local roots icons Steve Dawson and Jesse Zubot–and hired Dawson to produce as well–so there’s a serious acoustic-roots vibe to the album. The biggest musical departure for Byrnes can be heard in the Dawson-penned title track, a weirdly percolating instrumental that could fall into the funky space-jazz category.

“I really don’t know what you would call it,” says Byrnes, over the phone from his Marpole-area home. “I’d say there’s some Django [Reinhardt] influence, and there’s some blues influence that goes into it as well. But Steve told Elliot Polsky, the drummer, to play the drum part backwards, so it’s different from what is normally done in terms of the kick and snare. It’s flipped around. And even Jesse was like ‘Oh, I can’t play [fiddle] on this, it doesn’t make sense to me.’ But that song is a real amalgamation, which is what I hope a lot of the album to be. We didn’t want to make just another Jim Byrnes blues record, ya know.”
As well as Zubot, Dawson, and Polsky, Byrnes recruited organist Chris Gestrin and double-bassist Andrew Downing, two more of the finest young musicians in town. As Byrnes explains, the injection of new blood didn’t go unnoticed in the studio. “At one point somebody was sayin’, ‘Well, this is like you’re playing with your kids,’ ’cause all these guys–Steve and everybody–they’re all 25, 30 years younger than me, right? And I realized that it’s sort of a father-and-sons operation, and I thought ‘Wow, fresh horses.’ So that’s really how the title came about.”
As well as evocative Byrnes originals like “Just a Pilgrim” and “12 Questions”, Fresh Horses includes covers of Neil Young’s “For the Turnstiles”, and Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”. The former was brought to the table by Dawson, while the latter has been part of the Byrnes canon for years.”The first solo gig I ever did was opening for the Byrds in St. Louis in 1965,” he recalls, “and that was one of the songs I played in my set back then. During the sessions for Fresh Horses, in between takes, I just happened to be sittin’ there kinda practising the guitar and singing it, and Steve came in and said, ‘Let’s record that.’ ”

Another Fresh Horses highlight that could make the set list when Byrnes headlines a fundraiser for the Inner City Foster Parents Project at Richard’s on Richards on Thursday (March 25) is his down-home rendition of Muddy Waters’s 1948 knockout “I Can’t Be Satisfied”. Turns out the Missouri-born Byrnes goes way back with the Chicago blues great.

“I met Muddy when I was 15 years old,” he relates. “The first time I saw him was at a place called Slick’s Lakeside Club in Eagle Park, Illinois. I was a huge fan of his, and I had a couple of friends, and we were fearless–we would go anywhere to see these blues guys. In fact, in later days when I met Muddy again, he recalled that night, because he just cracked up to see these 15-year-old white kids walk into this place.”

The Vancouver blues ace is quick to offer encouragement to today’s upstarts. “There are so many talented young guys around here,” raves the 55-year-old, “people doin’ all different sorts of music. James Rogers is a fantastic young blues player around town, and then there’s guys like Ridley Bent. I mean, this guy, he says, ‘I’m the Clash when I’m thinkin’ and Johnny Cash when I’m drinkin’.’ He’s a riot!

“And then there are situations like where Chin [Injeti] runs that great thing at the Railway Club at the end of every month, where he has like a revolving group of singers and songwriters show up. I think it’s great when somebody does somethin’ like that, to keep everything fresh and new. You know, for those of us who have been around for 30 or 40 years, it’s nice to be able to interact with them.”

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