Jim Byrnes,
Long Hot Summer Days
(Black Hen Music, 2017)

While not much known on this side of the border, Vancouver-based, American-born Jim Byrnes is among the treasures of the Canadian roots scene. If grounded in blues, he is only generically a "bluesman"; he's better defined as a kind of contemporary songster whose music encompasses r&b, gospel, jazz, country, folk and rock. Whatever the style of a particular song, wherever he got it from, it is identifiably Byrnes' when he performs it.

His previous release, St. Louis Times (reviewed here on 4 May 2014), bedazzled me with its celebration of the sounds of Byrnes' youth in the city that launched everybody from Peetie Wheatstraw to Chuck Berry into the world. Long Hot Summer Days is if anything superior, a fully realized collection of songs, originals and covers, all tuned to his strengths.

I claim no expertise on his career, but I have heard all of his recordings since 2009, and I can attest that his singing has never sounded more confident. Evidently, Byrnes (now 69 years old) feels the same. "All of the singers I've ever loved have known when to hold back," he says. "I've finally learned to work with restraint." Many white singers of African-American music, especially those who think of themselves as blues artists, try too hard, throwing themselves into the songs and managing only to expose their own limitations. On Days, Byrnes feels as if fully within his own skin and comfort zone, a relaxed yet riveting storyteller who happens to boast of a good band and an excellent producer, his friend and longtime associate, the master guitarist Steve Dawson.

I doubt it is coincidence that the two originals, one written with Dawson, the other with Dawson and Tim Hearsey, borrow titles, albeit little else, from venerable folk songs: "Deep Blue Sea" and the title tune. Maybe the message is that though his musical touchstones are relatively more recent, Byrnes knows that the sounds come from a deeper place. The original "Deep Blue Sea" is a shantey -- Odetta's revival-era reading is particularly noteworthy -- while this otherwise new song borrows charmingly from mid-century r&b and doo-wop. John and Alan Lomax collected the traditional "Long Hot Summer Days" from a black convict in the Texas prison system in the 1930s.

On the disc's 53 minutes and 12 cuts Byrnes picks only two numbers likely be familiar, though not tiresomely so, to listeners: "The Shape I'm In" (from The Band ) and "Everybody Knows" (Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson). In the latter, the narrative of a spurned lover remarking mordantly on a woman's sexual infidelities, Byrnes is as droll as Cohen but -- possibly because he's a different kind of singer -- not as funny. Still, pretty good. The CD opens with something like a tongue-in-cheek gospel exercise, "Step by Step," an obscure number by the late Jesse Winchester, who as far as I know never wrote a bad song.

Other cuts cover deep-catalogue pieces from Elmore James, Percy Sledge and more. Willie Dixon's "Weak Brain, Narrow Mind" stands out in a spare, skeletal setting. You could easily take it as a testament to an era -- specifically, this one -- defined by its calamitous ignorance and catastrophic credulity. Maybe someday it'll show up on a soundtrack to a film on that subject.

music review by
Jerome Clark

9 December 2017

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