At the risk of invoking a sort of Billy Bob Thornton wrath, the first time I came across Jim Byrnes was on Highlander: The Series playing Joe. Now Joe was a Watcher, a member of a secret organization charged with “watching” the Immortals. Joe’s “cover,” I guess you could say, was as a bookshop clerk in Seacouver.
Byrnes himself is clearly a Watcher, but more importantly he’s a damn good listener.
With Everywhere West, Byrnes latest recording, the blues musician proves his knack of hearing and feeling the raw, real, dirty blues and delivers the goods through a dozen gratifyingly gritty cuts. His tenacious, mean, ugly-in-a-good-way voice blends with his precise guitar to produce the ultimate blues and roots engine.
Everywhere West is the fourth collaboration between Byrnes and producer Steve Dawson, the president of Black Hen Music. A host of other musicians fill out the vibe, creating a nice packed sound to the record that contrasts impeccably with Byrnes’ modest style.
The Juno-winning Byrnes gets off to a raucous start with “Hot As a Pistol,” a searing track that more than earns its namesake. Dawson lays out a thick slide guitar as the cut deliberately chugs through its muggy paces. Byrnes’ vocals rock as he articulates the meaning of the blues and alternates between speaking and singing with just the right trace of sandpaper.
The rendition of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Yield Not to Temptation” is one of my favourite tracks. Dawson brings the banjo out on this barnstorming gospel number. Jeanne Tolmie and Byrnes blend handsomely and the call-and-response of the chorus had my hands reaching for the skies. The track is either a robbery or a revival. Maybe both.
Byrnes has dedicated Everywhere West to “all those who have gone before” and there are hints of homage everywhere. His love for the art form shouted and stomped from wooden floors and broke-down stages is apparent with every holler and sneer he ecstatically delivers. “Deep down, blues is an acceptance of life,” Byrnes says. “You stand in front of life and life says ‘that’s the way it is baby.’ To play the blues, you take all the bullshit that’s been piling up and you channel it through your guitar and voice. You let the pain go and turn it into a good feeling.”
Whether he’s digging deep into a Byrnes original like the first-take recording of “Storm Warning” or piling it all on to a sweltering version of Jimmy Reed’s “Take Out Some Insurance on Me,” Byrnes is letting the pain go and giving the listener an opportunity to do the same.
Everywhere West is every bit the revival and the robbery, that’s for damn sure, and Byrnes is still every bit the Watcher.