Born and raised in St Louis, Missouri, but a long-time Canadian resident, 69-year-old Jim Byrnes has been singing the blues for over 50 years. His latest release, Long Hot Summer Days, is a fine collection of soul, blues and blues-rock with enough twists and turns to keep the listener engaged.
Long Hot Summer Days features only three original songs: the haunting minor key title track, the bouncing “Deep Blue Sea” and the acoustic country blues of “Anywhere The Wind Blows”. The nine cover versions are all relatively well-known, from The Band’s “The Shape I’m In” and Bobby Marchin’s “There Is Something On Your Mind” to Percy Sledge’s “Out Of Left Field” and Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”. But while some of these songs are perhaps overly familiar, Byrnes and his compadres invariably put an interesting twist on their versions. So Wilson Pickett’s “Ninety Nine And A Half (Won’t Do)” sees less focus on the famous bass line of the original and the introduction of some Stax-like horns, while Bobby Bland’s “Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City” sees the chorus re-worked with gospel voices and an almost country rhythm guitar part. “Everybody Knows” is slowed down slightly to draw out its bluesy edge. Jesse Winchester’s “Step By Step” has added slide guitar, horns and glorious backing vocals (and a great sax solo from Conway).
Byrnes, who sings and plays guitar, has assembled a top drawer band, with long-term collaborator (and producer) Steve Dawson on acoustic and electric guitars, slide guitar, national steel guitar, weissenborn and pedal steel; Geoff Hicks on drums and percussion; Jeremy Holmes on electric and upright bass and mandolin and Chris Gestrin on piano, Wurlitzer and organ. The horn section comprises Malcolm Aiken on trumpet, Jerry Cook on baritone saxophone and Dominic Conway on tenor saxophone. Steve Marriner guests on harmonica on a number of tracks, as do The Sojourners (Marcus Mosely, Will Sanders and Khari McClelland) on backing vocals. Byrnes provides all the soloists with plenty of room to stretch out, with a number of songs containing more than one solo, but it is indicative of the quality of the playing that no song feels as if it is over-staying its welcome.
So, for example, Elmore James’ “Something Inside Of Me”, re-imagined here complete with lush organ and T-Bone-inspired rhythm guitar, sees Dawson dial in a great slide guitar solo that is distinctly not inspired by James’ own playing, before Marriner takes an equally impressive harp solo. During the final verse, Gestrin switches from organ to piano and dances around Byrnes’ vocal lines.
Holding everything together, however, is Byrnes’ worn, weathered voice. If anything, it’s actually improving with age, equal parts rough-hewn masculinity and vulnerable sensitivity. There are hints of Delbert McClinton as he imposes a distinct personality on each song.
If one were being picky, one might lament the lack of pure blues numbers on the album. Apart from “Something Inside Of Me”, the only other straight-ahead blues song is a harrowing acoustic reinterpretation of Willie Dixon’s “Weak Brain, Narrow Mind” (with haunting harmonica from Marriner). But that would do a disservice to a fine album of roots, blues, soul and Americana. There is blues in every word Byrnes sings.