With all the acclaim heaped on cities like New Orleans and Memphis, people tend to forget that there’s another musical mecca located along the muddy Mississippi River. St. Louis, Missouri has long hosted the sort of blues and R&B scene that would turn other cities green with envy, and any metropolis that can boast of homegrown talent like Chuck Berry, Fontella Bass, and Lonnie Johnson as well as transplants like Albert King, Miles Davis, Ike Turner, and Henry Townsend, among many others, certainly has quite a bit to brag about...

Jim Byrnes may be known as a Canadian musical treasure these days, but the award-winning blues singer and actor was born and grew up in St. Louis, and credits the music he grew up around as a major influence, Byrnes’ love of blues and R&B formed by witnessing giants like Bobby “Blue” Bland and Jimmy Reed perform in the prime of their careers. Although Byrnes has frequently offered a nod to his hometown’s musical influences on his albums, St. Louis Times is the first full-length collection to honor the music and musicians that had a profound impact on Byrnes as a youth. With four new original songs co-written by Byrnes and producer/guitarist Steve Dawson, and a brace of cover tunes by noted St. Louis artists, St. Louis Times provides a heartfelt tribute to the city and its rich musical heritage.

Jim Byrnes’ St. Louis Times

One of St. Louis’ most acclaimed musical residents, guitarist Albert King, is honored with an energetic reading of “I Get Evil,” a 1962 single that pre-dated King’s Stax Records tenure. Byrnes brings a swinging tenor to the lyrics, his voice brimming over with questions, while Dawson’s guitar swoops and soars throughout the mix while guest star John Hammond’s lively harp playing punctuates the entire performance. It’s a strong, entertaining song that leads naturally into the Byrnes/Dawson original “Somebody Lied.” Hammond’s squealing harp perfectly underlines Byrnes’ silk-sandpaper vocals, Dawson’s stinging fretwork adding to the emotion of the song which, itself, is penned as an old-school R&B styled heartbreaker with a languid groove and soulful vibe that would have been as perfectly comfortable in 1954 as it is in 2014.

The musical playbook of St. Louis native Chuck Berry is wide and deep enough to present a difficult choice of cover songs, but Byrnes drives right past the obvious hits to take on “Nadine,” one of several Berry singles from 1964, but not one of his better-known tunes. Byrnes and Dawson slow the tempo, add a bit of Darryl Havers’ funky Wurlitzer organ alongside Dawson’s Southern-fried chicken pickin’, and cut Byrnes loose to deliver a smooth, nuanced vocal take that captures all of Berry’s frenetic energy in a strong, but subdued performance that serves to highlight Berry’s songwriting skills. The 1965 Fontella Bass hit “You’ll Miss Me (When I’m Gone)” features an engaging duet between Byrnes and Canadian singer Colleen Rennison, the song’s R&B roots upheld by an energetic horn line and the playful mix of Byrnes’ gruff vocals and Rennison’s sweeter, soulful tones.

The Duck’s Yas Yas Yas

Byrnes and Hammond share vocals on the late 1920s hit “The Duck’sYas Yas Yas,” written and performed by St. Louis boogie-blues pianist James “Stump” Johnson. The popular hokum tune was a jazz-blues vamp full of double-entendre lyrics, and in the reverent hands of Byrnes and Hammond, it retains all of its bawdy spirit. With Dawson’s fleet-fingered guitar and a brace of period-perfect horns courtesy of clarinetist Jim Hoke, trombonist Bill Huber, and trumpeter Steve Herrman, the two singers have a grand old time with the lyrics. Byrnes’ original “The Journey Home” is a provocative spoken-word piece that evokes memories of the singer’s childhood in the city, his breathless vocals sharply underlined by Dawson’s haunting guitar lines.

“The Journey Home” leads nicely into W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” the 1914 composition widely considered one of the first blues hits. Byrnes and crew play it high and tight, with Dawson’s National steel and Larry Paxton’s bleating Sousaphone riding high in the mix alongside Byrnes’ raucous vocals. The song’s jazz heritage is evident, its blues influence not quite as much, but the singer manages to find common ground between the two complimentary styles. Guitarist Colin James lends a little filigree acoustic guitar alongside Dawson’s funky slide playing on the early Little Milton side “That Will Never Do,” Havers’ piano tinkling away in the background behind Byrnes’ hearty, nuanced vocals. St. Louis Times closes with a cover of the great Lonnie Johnson’s “Another Night To Cry,” with Byrnes adding some nice guitar playing alongside Dawson’s slide and Herrman’s mournful trumpet serving as a fine counterpoint to Byrnes’ emotional vocals, the band perfectly capturing the jazzy late-night vibe of the original.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Byrnes has proven time and time again to be a skilled interpreter of vintage material, whether it be straight blues, jazz, or even country classics, they all benefit from his intelligent and insightful readings. With St. Louis Times, however, taking on a project that is obviously a true labor of love, Byrnes delivers in spades, applying his warm, deep vocals to a wide range of material, perfectly matching the originals to the spirit of the cover songs while Steve Dawson amps up his game with both inspired fretwork and light-fingered production that captures the spirit and the subtlety of the material. St. Louis Times is a joy to listen to, Byrnes paying tribute to his hometown’s musical heritage as well as his own with a set that displays a wealth of heart and soul. (Black Hen Music, released April 15, 2014)