Originally published in the Red Deer Advocate July 3 2009
My Walking Stick
Over the past several years, Vancouver’s Black Hen Music label has established itself as the premier western roots imprint. From adventurous string music to blues and gospel, the Steve Dawson-headed outlet has produced an unbroken string of exquisite, challenging releases.
Jim Byrnes, elder statesman of the West Coast blues community, delivers an album of incredible quality. I first heard Byrnes almost thirty years ago, and didn’t quite know what to make of him then. Fortunately, my ears have caught up and I can now appreciate his assured, efficient vocal approach.
The album includes a few Byrnes originals including the satisfying opener Ol’ Rattler; like many of the tunes, this one has a 60s Muscle Shoals-vibe with what could be Hammond B3 floating about the melody. The Band’s Ophelia has its tempo taken down a notch, and the effect simmers. Oh Susanna’s Three Shots– similar in theme to Stagger Lee– is the album’s centerpiece and is imminently memorable.
Black Hen-mates The Sojourners lend the album a soulful presence, with deep rhythm & blues harmony and background vocals. Their contributions make songs memorable and intensely appealing.
Producer Dawson is very hands-on and features his guitar talents on all cuts. Additionally, the album package is artful, with time-tinged photos housed in a digipak. All together, a class set and one should feel comfortable investing in such a project.
Likely found in the Blues section of shops, the album retains a roots aesthetic that defies narrow genre-labeling.