My recent review of Jimmy LaFave’s reissued Trail One and new Trail Four made no mention of the volumes in between because I hadn’t heard them. I have now, and can attest that they are every bit as memorable as the collections that preceded and followed them.
Like the other records in the Trail series, these albums contain an assortment of previously unreleased live and studio performances. The programs feature folk ballads, blues classics and roadhouse rockers, and include a generous sampling of material from the man who appears to be LaFave’s favorite writer, Bob Dylan. Trail Two incorporates a gripping version of “Not Dark Yet,” Dylan’s meditation on melancholia and (I think) death, along with a wonderful reading of Blood on the Tracks’ plaintive “Buckets of Rain.” Trail Three also taps Blood on the Tracks, for a fine “Meet Me in the Morning,” and features “Sweetheart Like You,” from Infidels. Reaching further back into the Dylan songbook, LaFave squeezes every bit of nuance from the early classics “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” and offers a rollicking 11-minute live medley that unites “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” with Robbie Robertson’s Band classic “The Weight.” As I said in my earlier review, if there’s a better Dylan interpreter out there, I don’t know who it is.
There are other noteworthy covers here, too, including a pensive concert reading of Woody Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills” on Trail Two and an intimate acoustic treatment of Bruce Springsteen’s “Secret Garden” on Trail Three. The latter arrangement, while so different from the original that I at first didn’t recognize the number, is just as emotional as the Boss’s version. After hearing it, I started thinking about a list of other Springsteen songs I’d like to hear LaFave cover.
The man’s voice is a remarkable instrument, but he is as much of a songwriter as he is a singer and these packages reaffirm that he can pen material worthy of sharing a program with that of the masters he covers. Effusive originals like Trail Two’s “River Road” and “Never Be Mine” and Trail Three’s “Rain Falling Down” create intimate moods with strong melodies and sparing, masterful use of metaphor.
In my head is a short list of relatively unknown artists who would have been famous decades ago if there were any justice in the world. The list includes names like Greg Brown, Tom Russell, Elliott Murphy, Michael Fracasso and the rock group Shack. And it absolutely includes Jimmy LaFave.
Jeff Burger edited Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, both published by Chicago Review Press. He is working on a third book for the same publisher. His website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary.