"You’re kind of well-known, but you are kind of obscure.”
That’s a comment Jimmy LaFave has heard before, he told me after his stellar outdoor show on Aug. 4 in a park in Ridgefield, CT.
The Austin-based singer-songwriter says the obscurity may be surprising because he played on stage with one of his musical heroes, Bruce Springsteen, during Springsteen’s Devils & Dust solo tour in April 2005. He joined Springsteen at Dallas’ Nokia Arena for an encore of Woody Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills”— a “lovely version” of the song, the Dallas Morning News reported.
It also may be surprising because LaFave has written memorable songs on numerous albums for decades, is arguably the greatest interpreter of Bob Dylan’s songs, and has been an integral part of tributes to Guthrie and Jackson Browne.
Like too many brilliant musicians these days, LaFave’s music doesn’t get the promotion and acclaim it deserves. Yet, singer-songwriters seeking to inject warmth and sheer beauty into their music would be wise to study LaFave. His songs, such as “River Road” on his Blue Nightfall album or “The Beauty of You” on his new album, The Night Tribe, are often breathtaking. And his covers of songs by Dylan, Browne, and others are frequently sublime with his pure, expressive voice — alternately sweet and raspy — which seem to take songs to another dimension, floating somewhere above the clouds. When LaFave sings a word as simple as “you,” it’s often a deep, devoted salute that transforms the woman of his eye into unabashed royalty.
In Ridgefield, which each summer hosts an incredible free concert series called CHIRP, LaFave kicked off the show with Neil Young’s poignant “Journey through the Past” and later covered Dylan’s classic “Queen Jane Approximately,” two songs that also appear on The Night Tribe. He also performed Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” and a wild, rocking version of “Just Like A Woman.” The latter started slowly and transformed into a full-blown rocker that unleashed the incredible skills of pianist/accordionist Radoslav Lorkovic and lead guitarist Anthony da Costa. (I have seen 50-100 Dylan concerts, and LaFave’s cover was the best version of this song I have ever seen.)
His stellar band includes bassist Andrew Pressman, who also plays bass for Ben Kweller and Danny Schmidt, and drummer Bobby Kallus. Da Costa, who also records as a solo folk artist, has shelved the acoustic guitar and become a dynamic electric guitarist. His banter with LaFave throughout the set was quite entertaining, and his intense solos were exciting. There are few sidemen, though, like Lorkovic, whose piano and accordion solos have long added so much color to LaFave’s recordings. They leave concertgoers hungry for more.
LaFave remarked mid-set about “what a country we live in” — one that allows a high school graduate who had a C average and hated high school to employ band members who all have college degrees. Da Costa, for example, graduated from Columbia University’s prestigious Columbia College with a history degree.
The show featured a gorgeous take of “The Beauty of You” and ended with fun covers of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and The Left Banke’s ‘Walk Away Renee.”
In an interview in a nearby bar after the show, LaFave said he couldn’t pinpoint the Dylan song he perceived as most brilliant. He should know — he has recorded more than 30 Dylan songs and usually includes at least one on each new release. He says his favorite Dylan album is Blood On The Tracks, but Blonde on Blonde is right near the top. He's been into Dylan since high school and particularly loves “You’re A Big Girl Now” from Blood On The Tracks and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” from Bringing It All Back Home.
Besides Dylan, LaFave has a magical touch when he covers Jackson Browne’s songs. His version of “For Everyman” on last year’s Looking into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne was one of the album’s highlights. The album also featured covers by Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams, Keb’ Mo’, and Lyle Lovett, among others.
It was a Browne concert in 1990 at the historic Crystal Theatre in Okemah, OK, that LaFave considers the best show he has ever seen. Okemah was the hometown of Woody Guthrie, and Browne’s performance at the theater — which dates to the 1920s — was part of the third annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, held annually on the weekend nearest to July 14, Guthrie’s birthdate.
“It was Jackson solo, and it was an amazing show,” LaFave recalls. “I had seen Jackson perform before, but he felt something special that night in the place where Woody was from. He felt the vibe and the energy in the old Crystal Theatre in Okemah.”
In his review of the show, Tulsa World music writer Thomas Conner wrote that Browne’s performance was “refreshing and apropos,” and his “tenderness, humility and grace spearheaded” the annual festival.
“'Folk music is what made me want to start playing music," Browne told the sold-out crowd, according to Conner’s review. “‘Woody, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly—these are the people who lit a fire under me.’”
Browne “proved his sincerity” with a three-hour show of nearly 30 songs, Conner reported, switching between acoustic guitar and piano. Browne performed many of his classic songs and covered an old Rev. Gary Davis blues song that he said he learned from Dave Van Ronk, Dylan's "Song to Woody," and Guthrie’s “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).”
LaFave’s frequently plays Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills” at his concerts — including an inspired version in Ridgefield — and his deep love for Guthrie and his music may manifest itself in another way in the future. Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, let LaFave look at previously unseen lyrics for 30 songs from the legendary folk singer’s archives. They chose 19 songs for a future album project, and LaFave plans to co-write the music.
The performance of another music legend, Chuck Berry, is also ingrained in LaFave’s mind. Berry played on Jan. 28, 2006, at the Paramount Theatre in Austin — a show that was advertised as “straight outta the history books.”
It was “a magical Chuck Berry show,” LaFave says. “A lot of people have thought Chuck Berry’s live shows were often crappy because of the pick-up bands he used. But that night it was the way the crowd reacted to the king of rock and roll. “He started playing “Roll Over Beethoven,” and everybody danced down the aisles, over the stage and off the stage. It was almost like it was choreographed, but it was a spontaneous moment of joy. The real spirit of rock and roll was there.”