Jim Bryson -Making Merry and Keeping Spirits Bright

Jim Bryson: Making Merry and Keeping Spirits Bright

  • 12th Annual Christmas show at the Black Sheep Inn
  • Album review for the Instant Holiday Album
  • Album review for The Falcon Lake Incident


Luigi Saracino

Jim Bryson will be back at the Black Sheep Inn for his 12th annual Christmas show! And if that wasn’t enough to put a seasonal spring in your step, this year, there’s a Saturday night and Sunday matinee show too! Now that, my friends, is a Christmas gift! Bryson’s shows at the Black Sheep have taken on almost mythical proportions, and have become a fan favourite, with tickets routinely selling out well in advance. (The two shows on December 22 and 23 are sold out.) Year after year, Bryson has obliged his fans, old and new, with exhilarating performances; insightful, candid, entertaining stories; and special musical guests.

This year will be no exception. Backing Bryson is his band the Occasionals, with musical guests The Weather Station. Of course, the evening will certainly include some great music, stellar performances and a whole lot of fun, but one of the things that’s got me the most excited is the rumor that Bryson may have two drummers playing on stage that night! Woo and hoo! I should admit, I’m a bit of a “drum nerd”, in that I don’t know too many other people who would pick John Bonham’s drum solo from Moby Dick as one of their favorite pieces of music. Suffice it to say, I’m excited at the prospect! This, I can pretty much guarantee, will be one heck of a festive night!

Bryson has also released a lovely holiday recording called Instant Holiday Album. The title refers to the way the record was put together, as Bryson decided to ask some of his musician friends – audio-engineer Dave Draves, Jarrett Bartlett, The Acorn’s Rolf Klausener, Jon Bartlett and Jeremy Fisher, to name but a few – to participate in a 15-hour recording session, with the proceeds going to the Royal Ottawa Hospital Foundation’s You Know Who I Am campaign for mental health awareness. http://www.youknowwhoiam.com/ , as well as to the Shepherds of Good Hope http://www.shepherdsofgoodhope.com/  It’s a warm, thoughtful, rollicking album, and as all sales will go to charity, there’s really no reason not to pick up a copy!

Bryson says the recording of the album could not have been a better experience:

“It was really fun! We had a really good time making it. I’m a fan of that sort of amalgam sound between the Peanuts Christmas record and the Frank Sinatra / Dean Martin stuff. That’s what we were aiming for with this album.” The idea for the record stemmed from Bryson’s writing collaboration with fellow songwriter Jeremy Fisher for their Catch and Release recording sessions, where Bryson and Fisher would routinely write an entire song under an extremely tight timeline, and then simply give it away.

Bryson explains: “I like the idea of throwing up challenges to yourself and seeing if you can pull it off. It’s not like we pulled off Live Aid or anything, but to see the support and donation of time and effort from all of these people was amazing. Everybody I asked said yes. It’s like that old cliché, the first step is just asking. Everybody wanted to do it, and no one was sending me invoices afterwards.” Bryson’s decision to donate the proceeds is something he humbly downplays: “It makes sense not to keep it. The spirit of the record was meant to be that of a gift, and if some people end up putting it on when their friends and family come over, that would be great. That’s a victory. With the help of all these people, we were able to have a beginning, a middle and an end. We were able to make something really special.” The album, filled with holiday classics, is available via online music site Zunior, http://www.zunior.com/ but to those lucky few attending one of this weekend’s shows at the Black Sheep, fans will also be able to purchase a limited edition woodcut hand-printed postcard with a download code. How cool is that! As Larry David might say: “Pretty, pretty, pretty, cool!”

One of the greatest things about attending the annual event is getting to experience the level of intimacy and warmth that Bryson and his band are able to project during his shows. It’s almost as if the entire crowd is sitting in Bryson’s living room; there’s a sense of familiarity and welcoming that few musicians and performers are able to achieve. Bryson is a songwriter’s songwriter, the kind of artist other musicians admire and respect. And his songs are open, humble, honest and filled with wit. Bryson is one hell of a guy and one hell of a musician, as his stints playing and touring with the wonderful Kathleen Edwards, the enchanting Lynn Miles, the outstanding The Weakerthans, and the iconic Canadian superstars The Tragically Hip will attest. When Kathleen Edwards is writing a song about you, namely, I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory, which appeared on Edwards’ Asking for Flowers record, you can safely assume you’ve made a good impression.

But that’s what Bryson does, he makes a good impression. Whether through his music, or just by having a good old conversation with you, he’s the kind of artist whose thoughtfulness, insight, consideration and soulfulness come through regardless of the environment. I’ve had the good fortune to know Bryson for more than 20 years. In that time, he has always shown himself to be an earnest, outstanding performer, an outside-the-box kind of thinker, and a daring and extremely well-accomplished songwriter. Bryson pushes himself to do new things, and it’s perhaps this trait that has contributed most to his growth as an artist and as a person. His songs shine with honesty, sincerity, earnestness and integrity, and his insights into human nature and the world at large are unique and thought-provoking. Bryson first rose to prominence in the Ottawa music scene back in 1994 as a founding member of the outstanding pop-punk combo Punchbuggy. But he really started to shine when at the helm of his own ship, so to speak, taking the DIY ethic to its logical conclusion by releasing an album under his own name, the amazing The Occasionals, in 2000.

Bryson’s most recent record, The Falcon Lake Incident, was recorded with none other than the aforementioned Canadian rock heroesThe Weakerthans, in the Falcon Lake summer vacation area, located near the border of Ontario and Manitoba. Falcon Lake is said to be the location of a rather famous UFO sighting back in 1967. Perhaps some of that otherworldly, transcendent energy was left behind, because there’s plenty of it on this album. Most of it was recorded in what must be some kind of record-breaking six- day stint. This is an extremely natural, organic-sounding album, not at all hurried-sounding which is what you may expect based on the tight recording timeframe, which makes it an even more remarkable achievement. Rather, it is subtle, warm, inviting and expansive. Bryson and The Weakerthans obviously work very well together, and both parties seem to be able to spur each other on to greater heights.

This is a collaboration that created something truly unique and important, a record with actual sentiment, depth and real emotion.

Metal Girls is one of my favorite tracks, with its accompanying guitar and toy-piano-sounding flourishes, adding a charming sense of richness and fullness to the music and lyrics. Another standout track, Constellations, has some of the most heartbreaking, emotion-filled opening guitar chords I’ve ever heard. Bryson’s seemingly simplistic songwriting approach belies a great depth and wisdom. Bryson’s lyrics are just as keen and sharp as ever: he is a storyteller through and through, like some sort of folk-rock Tom Waits. And when he delivers lines like “Despite what they say we are not like birds or even aeroplanes, we never get to fly,” the acceptance and resolve in Bryson’s voice is almost palpable.

Bryson confides that his battle with depression last winter, crystallized certain things for him, and literally gave him a new perspective on life. While he admits it was one of the most challenging periods of his life, he is also grateful for it.

“I realized that I just have to do as much as I can do, and not worry whether it amounts to anything. I felt like I had become much more aware of the balance around me being much more fragile than it had ever been, and something just clicked with me. Luckily, I was able to get up and say ‘enough of this, I have to take this on.’ I have to have a better attitude; I have to love life more. I was able to remind myself of what it felt like when I wasn’t someone who played music, but someone who just listened to music and went to shows. As strange as it may sound, I was able to remind myself of my love for music and for my craft. And I also realized when I came out of it that I never would have found that love again if I hadn’t gone through the experience of that depression.

“As hard as music is, it’s not coal mining. There’s certainly bad days, and uncertainty, but the fact that you get to steer your own ship, to make your own choices, to do what you want to do, is something I deeply appreciate, and am immensely grateful for, and something I don’t take lightly. You’ve got to just keep doing stuff. You have to keep doing things to keep your brain and spirit active. I think it was John Fogerty who said, ‘You have to keep on keepin’ on’, and those are pretty good words to live by.”

You can obtain a copy of Jim Bryson’s new release The Falcon Lake Incident via the Kelp records website: http://kelprecords.com/jimbryson/?page_id=92

or through Bryson’s website: http://www.jimbryson.org/

For more music and information on recordings and gigs, check out Bryson’s MySpace page: http://ca.myspace.com/jimbryson



Luigi Saracino is a musician, composer, writer, stand-up comic, actor and voice-actor. He also plays and writes music with a lovely group of guys under the moniker Crown Victoria. Luigi loves living in Ottawa, is naturally buoyant in freshwater, and believes that “Slinkies” are powered by a combination of “magic” and “bluish-hued imps from the seventh dimension.” Luigi would also like everyone to know that he is only a little bit ticklish, and a huge sucker for any movie with the incomparable William Atherton in it.