On St. Louis Times Jim Byrnes finds a voice, in both the literal and the metaphorical senses, that is perfectly pitched between yesterday and today, which is to say between the traditional and the contemporary. The subject is the great vernacular music of the city Byrnes grew up in decades ago. Though he has long been a resident of Vancouver and a prominent performer on the Canadian roots scene, his music demonstrates that if you have the memory, the soul and the talent, you can go home again.
The CD mixes eight older songs with four of Byrnes' own well-crafted originals, each co-written with producer Steve Dawson, Black Hen label head and guitar master. Byrnes doesn't dig down to the deepest roots of St. Louis blues, back to the time when rural folk musicians such as Peetie Wheatstraw, Charley Jordan, J.D. Short and Henry Spaulding rambled up the Mississippi River to leave a lasting recorded legacy. Still, the oldest piece on Times, the traditional bawdy song "The Duck's Yas Yas Yas," has plenty of years on it. Byrnes learned it from whorehouse piano player Stump Johnson's version. Most folkniks first encountered it via the late Dave Van Ronk's "Yas Yas Yas," which has a different melody and alternate lyrics, though "yas yas yas" means the same thing in both.
Inevitably, W.C. Handy's warhorse "St. Louis Blues" makes an appearance, in a happily inspired arrangement equal parts oldtime blues and early jazz. Just as noteworthy is Byrnes' way with Chuck Berry's witty "Nadine," slowed down to allow for an amiably conversational rendering. Little Milton's "That Will Never Do" and Albert King's "I Get Evil" are so successfully re-imagined that they could pass for Byrnes originals.
The production is damn close to flawless. Guitars, mouth harp, drums and keyboards are sometimes augmented by jazz- and r&b-inflected horns. John Hammond shows up on several cuts to contribute harmonica and/or vocal support. Dawson handles a variety of guitars; even when they're electric ones, they're played with taste and restraint, always serving the songs while eschewing bombastic distractions.
You have to be really good to do what's happening in these grooves, of course, but Byrnes, Dawson and company carry their shared gift lightly. This is the kind of music that's imaginable yet tricky to pull off. Suffice it to say it arrives safely into the world. Here it is only spring, and St. Louis Times makes 2014 already a good year for the blues.