As an actor, Jim Byrnes may create fiction, but as a musician and singer, he’s always told the truth. It’s no surprise to learn, then, that the legendary bluesman named the gospel group currently accompanying him after a 19th-century African-American abolitionist and women’s-rights activist.
From his home in Vancouver, Byrnes says he first performed with Marcus Mosely and Will Sanders in Vancouver in 1986, but it wasn’t until the recording of the Juno-winning House of Refuge 20 years later that the pair became a trio (with the addition of Ron Small) and got a name—the Sojourners.
“It really turned into something and so we came to the end of the recording session and I said, ‘Man, we can’t just walk away and not do something with this . . . I’m going to give this group a name,” he says. “I picked out the Sojourners as a nod to the great emancipationist Sojourner Truth.”
Byrnes toured with the trio and things developed. “They’ve now recorded a fabulous CD [Hold On] and are backing up other people—it’s turned into a real cottage industry,” he says with sincere pleasure, adding, “There’s a real special bond that we all have. All musicians share some kind of thing, but we share a lot of history. It’s really great to be able to present that in a proper fashion.”
History is important to Byrnes. While he’s happily lived in Vancouver for decades, he’s never abandoned his roots. “Culturally we all came up in various parts of the States, but with an awareness . . . it’s more than the music . . . there’s a whole culture that goes along with it that we’re all aware of and so we just have so much fun hanging out together and telling lies to each other—you know what I’m saying?”
The music has a lot to do with that bond, of course. “I love the harmony singing so much,” says Byrnes. “We have so much fun when we do it; it takes it to a whole other level for me.”
At his Blues Bash gig this weekend, Byrnes plans to offer a mix of material from his last two albums, since his band also includes Steve Dawson, who worked with him on his 2003 record, Fresh Horses. He thinks something will probably emerge from the distant past as well. “I generally pull one or two completely out of the sky every night. They might just be from my old repertoire; I’ve been doing this professionally for 43 years. I got a couple of songs in my head and every now and then one of them will just say, ‘Hey guys, key of E from the five and let’s go for it’—so that’s liable to happen too.”
Old or new material, Glenn Parfitt at the Victoria Jazz Society is clearly pleased to have Byrnes back because of the great response he received at his recent Jazz Fest performance in July when he shared the bill with Susan Tedeschi. “Getting the opportunity to have him back to start was just over the top,” says Parfitt, adding, “I’ll bow down to him all day.”
Parfitt is happy with the whole lineup, noting that it features seasoned players and exciting newcomers alike. He rattles off some favourites, including the veteran Lloyd Jones and a new young group from Belmont High School called Mother Funk and the Madmen. “You should hear their CD, recorded right off the floor . . . they’re really, really good.”
“There’s a really cool blues scene in town,” he adds, “and we’re just thrilled to be part of it by doing the Blues Bash."
- Rick Gibbs