[4 November 2009]
Though he may be best known for his acting skills, Jim Byrnes is well worth checking out as a musician. Having played several recurring roles, including television show Highlander, Byrnes has a list of projects on IMDB that will keep the mouse button scrolling. In 1972, Byrnes lost both of his legs in a car accident. Afterwards he turned to music, embracing the blues and involving himself in the Vancouver music scene. He has filled the My Walking Stick cast with notable musicians. Byrnes himself sounds like a relaxed Colonel Bruce Hampton, with his Southern rock and blues frontman persona and style.
The album begins with a Byrnes original, “Ol’ Rattler”. Byrnes’s quiet slide guitar and kick drum by Stephen Hodges (who has played with Tom Waits and John Hammond) begin with a blues riff, and the double bass (Keith Lowe, who has played with Wayne Horvitz, Fiona Apple, and Bill Frisell), organ (Chris Gestrin), and weissenborn (Steve Dawson, who also produces) separately fill out the sound little by little. Dawson provides various instrumentation (such as national tricone, lap steel, mandotar, etc.) throughout the record. By the one-minute-30-second mark, Byrnes’s gravelly vocals have entered the scene and the accompaniment has reached an utter fullness. Gestrin’s soaring organ parts give the rocking piece an extra looseness.
The cover depicts Byrnes amidst gnarling roots that fester underneath him before straightening into Byrnes’s cane, or “walking stick”. The cane supports cracked and weathered hands, complete with a band-aid on a finger tip. Byrnes probably has dry hands in the winter, and the skin splits from being so parched. This husky, rusty feeling permeates his music from the junky percussion, the hodge-podge of instruments to, of course, Byrnes’ textured vocals. The imagery on the cover also might imply that Byrnes’ music is deeply rooted in something, such as roots blues. Not only do the song themes cover typical blues territory (struggles with life and death, wandering, lost souls, and love), but song structures include gospel blues (“I Want My Crown”) and country blues (“Lonely Boy Blue (Danny’s Song)”). Blues is not the only genre explored, though. Some songs, such as “Lookin’ for a Love” and “One Life (Creole Poetry)” have a zydeco flavor and Cajun undertone.
The title track begins with Byrnes playing a tango riff on his electric guitar; Dawson plays the chunking tremolo guitar that gives the tango its signature twist. With multi-part vocal harmonies by gospel labelmates the Sojourners (who appear throughout the album), the Irving Berlin composition conjures a 1940s-era swagger and “Puttin’ on the Ritz” vibe. The “oohs” of the backing vocals seem especially dated and typical of Berlin’s sound. Finally, also check out Byrnes’ cover of Robbie Robertson’s “Ophelia”. Dawon’s tin banjo sound melds so well with Byrnes’s gruff voice.