Veteran actor Jim Byrnes is familiar with working in ensembles and painting pictures with a cast of characters. For his loving tribute to his home town St. Louis, Byrnes teamed up again with Steve Dawson, the musical director and production guru at Black Hen Music, who gathered some of the best roots musicians in Canada together to record the basic tracks for the April 2014 release St. Louis Times.
The twelve tracks are a mixture of songs that were recorded by St. Louis musicians like Chuck Berry, Stump Johnson, Little Milton, and Peetie Wheatstraw, along with several new tunes written by Byrnes that pay tribute to the city of his birth and the music he grew up on. Authentic is the best accolade to assign to the collection recorded by Dawson on vintage equipment at the Henhouse studios in Vancouver, B.C. The brilliant rhythm section of Jeremy Holmes on bass and Geoff Hicks on drums chose fat tones and smooth grooves to support each reinvention and adaptation.
John Hammond is first among the guest stars adding greasy harmonica to the Albert King classic “I Get Evil,” and the low-down blues "Somebody Lied," both of which feature Dawson’s renowned slide guitar. Darryl Havers anchors the Chuck Berry staple “Nadine” to a funky groove on the Wurlitzer, allowing Byrnes room to work the lyric.
The sassy seductress Colleen Rennison trades barbs with Byrnes on the Fontella Bass and Bobby McLure hit “Miss Me,” bolstered by the addition of a tight three-piece horn section. Hammond returns to join in the bawdy ragtime ramble “The Duck Yas Yas Yas,” complete with soaring clarinet and tuba. Byrnes’ narrative “The Journey Home,” could easily be found in a Ken Burns film. Of course no tribute would be complete without W.C Handy’s blue print “St. Louis Blues,” delivered here with love and gusto, while the reading of “Cake Alley,” sounds like a remaster of the 1930’s gem. Colin James adds some slick picking to the easy swing of “That Will Never Do,” a tune first recorded by Little Milton at iconic Bobbin Records in East St. Louis. Byrnes and Co. close the album with a mournful take on Lonnie Johnson’s “Another Night To Cry,” milking the emotion out of the ballad from another St. Louis Bluesman who found refuge north of the 45th parallel.