By Steve Newton
Thirty years ago today—on May 6, 1985—Vancouver blues legend Jim Byrnes was in the midst of a week-long stint at a nightclub in the West End.
That’s no big whoop as far as Vancouver music history goes, but considering how much Byrnes has contributed to the city’s blues scene since then, I figured it was worth a mention three decades later.
Besides, back then I interviewed the 36-year-old Byrnes for my weekly column Night Shift, and I haven’t kept those old yellowing pages lying around for nothin’.
To keep the time period in perspective, this was two years before Byrnes’ acting career took of with his role as “Lifeguard” on the locally shot TV series Wiseguy.
Here’s the story that was printed in the Georgia Straight‘s May 10 issue under the headline Jim’s Byrnin’ Up the Clubs.
“It seems to wax and wane,” said blues master Jim Byrnes, speaking of the local blues scene. He and his band—one of the tightest and most accomplished R&B outfits in Canada—were doing their part to keep the spirit of the blues alive last week in a six-night stand at The Embassy on Davie.
“There’s a dedicated hardcore of blues fans in town,” he added, “and they’re always turning out. And then there are people who are on the fringe; if something seems to be popular for a moment they’ll come out. But blues is something that’s gonna be there no matter what. It’ll fall in and out of fashion. But I’m not into it for the fashion end of it, I’m into it because I love it.”
With his bandmates, keyboardsman Mike Kalanj (formerly with the Night Train Revue and Susan Jacks), bassist Lee Oliphant (Prototype, Sample-Stearns), and drummer Duris Maxwell (the Powder Blues, Doucette), Byrnes has earned a reputation as Vancouver’s most consistently impressive club act. In fact, he’s won the Tribute to West Coast Music’s “Best Club Act” category for the last two years.
“I was kinda surprised to win it twice,” he said. “I thought Rubber Biscuit might have beaten us because they’ve got a really good onstage act. And Bolero Lava too.
“But I guess it’s the fact that we work more than anybody else, you know?”
The Jim Byrnes band sometimes plays as many as 300 nights a year, churning out old classics like Tyrone Davis’ “Hands of Time” and Al Green’s “Love and Happiness”, and turning them into Byrnes Band staples—crowd-pleasers to be sure. One of the most impressive covers in the group’s current repertoire is a dreamy version of Bobby Blue Bland’s “Dreamer”, which was a killer at The Embassy last week.
“We do a bunch of Bobby Bland stuff,” said Jim, “and I love his singing. And there’s a guy called Magic Sam—who’s dead now—but he’s my idol in a way. I love the way he’s just flat out, you know, just plain blue.”
Byrnes’ group is presently being sponsored by the Miller Highlife “Rock Network”, which means that the group’s wheels are well greased when it comes to promotion.
“If we go up to Whistler or someplace they’ll have a ‘Miller night’, where there’s beer specials on, and I’ll chat it up. Meanwhile they have provided us with a whole load of promotional material, all of which has the Miller logo on it.
“And every now and then I get a free beer too,” he added with a chuckle.
The extraordinary blues of Jim Byrnes can be taken in all next week (May 13-19) at the Yale pub on Granville.