The Times Colonist
Musician and actor Jim Byrnes is respected in the Canadian music scene. The Vancouver singer-songwriter is especially noted for his gruff, soulful voice and a respectful approach to the blues.
Yet while Byrnes has accrued modest acclaim in the past -- both in music and for acting in such ventures as the Highlander TV series -- he's generating his greatest excitement in years with the House of Refuge project.
Byrnes made his Victoria debut with the act in June as part of JazzFest International. This gospel-driven band, featuring a trio of African-American ex-patriates on background vocals and guitar-whiz Steve Dawson, managed to eclipse the headliner: popular blues-rocker Susan Tedeschi. Impressed, JazzFest producer Darryl Mar has invited Byrnes and the House of Refuge back to play at the Vancouver Island Blues Bash tomorrow night.
Byrnes's 2006 House of Refuge album won critical raves and a Juno Award for blues album of the year.
"It has," said the 59-year-old bluesman, "been one of the most successful things I've been involved in."
The disc offers gospel and blues favourites as well as original numbers such as Byrnes's poignant older-man-looks-back composition, Running Out of Time. What makes it truly remarkable, however, is the church-cured vocal harmonies of Marcus Mosley, Will Sanders and Ron Small (Byrnes dubbed them the Sojourners), as well as Dawson's skilled guitar work and atmospheric production.
Of Dawson, Byrnes says: "I think he's an absolute genius as a producer."
Indeed, the younger man's knack for cultivating captivating sonic textures and an atmosphere of sweet melancholy recalls producer Rick Rubin's work with Johnny Cash and innovative late recordings by the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Although this is his first gospel album, Byrnes has yearned to record one for years.
He has always loved the genre, which provides the musical DNA for 1960s rhythm-and-blues and Motown. Originally from St. Louis, he recalls once singing as a nine-year-old at an interfaith concert. Byrnes, brought up as a Catholic, sang the lead in The Magnificat. But what really impressed the youngster was a rollicking gospel performance by the Greater Bethlehem Baptist Church choir.
"I came out and my mom said, 'What did you think of that?' And I said, 'Mom, their God is alive!' "
As a teen, Byrnes tuned into an R&B/gospel radio station that broadcast live from such foot-stomping venues as the Miami Church, the Haynes Miracle Temple and the Lively Stone Church of God. The teen also attended black gospel services purely to hear the music (today Byrnes identifies himself as having a "spiritual link," but not a church-goer).
He first met Mosley about the time of Expo 86, when he and future Sojourner Will Sanders were enlisted by Byrnes to sing background vocals for a basement studio session.
"Even back then," Mosley recalled, "we said, 'One of these days we gotta get together and do a gospel project.' " Over the years, Byrnes and Mosley united for various gospel and/or R&B concerts, pairing to sing a Jerry Butler tune here or a Temptations song there.
When Byrnes recently signed to Black Hen Music (for which he released the disc Fresh Horses in 2004), label founder and producer Dawson encouraged him to realize his ambition of making a gospel recording.
Determined to deliver an authentic black gospel sound, Byrnes first thought of collaborating with the Soul Stirrers, a legendary gospel group that once counted Sam Cooke as a member. Byrnes had met and sung with the group when they visited Vancouver.
But when the logistics of scheduling sessions with the Soul Stirrers proved too difficult, he contacted Mosley, who in turn enlisted his friends Sanders and Ron Small. All three singers know gospel, having been raised in the church.
Mosley -- who had previously co-founded his own gospel group, the Good Noise Vancouver Gospel Choir -- said he and his colleagues were initially amazed at Byrnes's familiarity with the gospel canon.
"We grew up in the church singin' these songs. But you look at Jim, this Jesuit-educated guy."
Mosley believes what audiences find appealing about the House of Refuge project is the "made-in-heaven" musical chemistry between Dawson and Byrnes, the album's stellar production and the fact their music clings closely to the authentic gospel sound -- a powerful force in 20th-century popular music.
"A lot of the stuff comes from that tradition," Mosley said. "It comes from Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. It comes from the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Swan Silvertones, the Golden Gate Singers."
Added Byrnes: "It's the emotion. It's very powerful stuff... And working with the guys, I just love it."
- A Chamberlain