Jim Byrnes is an extraordinary bluesman with the track record to show for it. The man falls into the local legend category around Vancouver, and is a fixture at festivals of all sorts here. He's been playing for ever, and if there's a Blues award there's a more than solid chance that he's been nominated for it.
That's why it makes perfect sense that his newest album, I Hear the Wind in the Wires, is a collection of covers of classic country tunes by the likes of Buck Owens, Marty Robbins and Tom Waits (whose fit with the Country label may not be obvious at first but it belongs on the album--trust me on this one.)
Byrnes held an album launch party at Vancouver's Electric Owl. The Owl is a relatively new venue in town, and on this particular night it was set up like an old style blues dinner club with tables everywhere and a near capacity crowd enjoying dinner and drinks. There was an audible buzz in the room that was nice to hear.
Byrnes' producer Steve Dawson played an opening set that started solo but brought the full band to the stage over its duration. "Just add water" Dawson said, while leading the stellar lineup of musicians through a set that included material from Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan in addition to Dawson's own material. Alternating between the slide guitar and his regular instrument, Dawson's playing h
The opening set wrapped with a cover of Ray Charles' I Got a Woman ("but we're doing the Booker T. and the M.G.s version" according to Dawson) and the band took a short break before Byrnes took the stage. Joking with the audience about the venue--this location has a rather notorious, seedy past--Byrnes quickly got down to business. "When I started recording this album," he explained "it became pretty obvious that we could have done six CDs."
The bluesman, you see, knows a hell of a lot about country music. As it turns out when he was a young kid he cut his chops learning how to play guitar by covering the music he loved. Wind in the Wiresis a passion project, and it showed in the live show.
The set opened with Waylon Jennings' Waymore's Blues, a song that Jennings described by saying that the "first verse is about Jimmie Rodgers, the rest is about nothing" before moving on to Ray Charles' I Believe to your Soul and Bill Anderson's City Lights, the first track from I Hear the Wind in the Wires.
Byrnes was a chatty and engaging presence throughout the set, introducing each song with a small history lesson. Before singing Tom Waits' House Where Nobody Lives Byrnes explained he liked Waits enough that he "...testified in U.S. federal court for him when he sued Pepsi for using his songs and his voice...because I was the guy they paid to imitate him." Byrnes' storytelling skills are great, and combined with the immensely talented band it made the evening even more engaging.
Marty Robbins' Big Iron is a standout track on Wind in the Wires and it was in the live set too. "Wish me luck," Byrnes quipped, "there's a whole lot of lyrics. It's a long long story and none of this shit repeats." Having originally tried the song on his first guitar at age 11, it's safe to say that Byrnes' guitar playing has come a long way in the years since.
As the night continued Byrnes was joined on stage by Colleen Rennison of No Sinner on backing vocals and then the members of One More Girl.Throughout the night it was obvious that the entire band was having a good time with bandleader Steve Dawson wearing the kind of smile on his face the whole night that makes it obvious that he pretty much figures he has the best job in the world right now.
Byrnes' set was astonishingly good, and that says a lot for a musician of his calibre. His fondness for the material on the album is obvious when he plays it, and it's infectious for the audience which, on this particular Sunday night, stayed into the wee hours of the morning to hear a man do what he loves.
With a set that included a number of tracks that were left on the cutting room floor when I Hear Wind in the Wires was released I'm hopeful that even if those six CDs Byrnes alluded to at the beginning of his set don't see the light of day, the bluesman decides to dip into the country well for at least one more album in the near future. I'll be there, and the sold out crowd at the Electric Owl pretty much guarantees I'll be bringing a posse with me.