Vast stretches of miles between
Jimmy LaFave is the kind of artist a category like "folk-rock" was invented for: a clever, empathetic artist who knows that if you lean into it, tried and true need not mean dusty. LaFave may be the master of existing forms--cliches, if you're feeling less than accommodating--but he knows that they have at their hearts at least a grain of truth, and sometimes a lot more. On disc he delves into the transmission of feeling like any good singer-songwriter would, aided by an uncommon talent for matching emotion and melody. And while he can wax tender and sensitive with the best of them, his faster songs hint at what LaFave makes abundantly clear live: He's the master of that territory best called American Bar Band, having kept alive in his heart one of the thousands of sparks sent skyward when Bob Dylan went electric so many cycles ago.
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LaFave--who grew up just east of here and went to school in Mesquite--is a native version of Tom Petty, without Petty's hipster distance and therefore just a little more emotionally honest and open. And vulnerable: His version of the Left Banke's "Walk Away Renee" (from his name-making debut, 1992's Austin Skyline) is one of the best versions of that sad denial of damage ever, every bit the equal of the Four Tops' lush 1967 remake, yet even more poignant, owing to its stripped-down arrangement and LaFave's distinctive voice, which can quaver with all-too-familiar humanity but never sounds unmusical. Live, his version of "Renee" can make even those in a good mood sigh--recalling that tragic sixth-grade romance--and drive the depressed (or even the mildly bummed) to salt their drink with their tears. A few years back, at a tribute to Woody Guthrie down in Austin, LaFave's impressive ability to assume the identity behind Guthrie's "Oklahoma Hills" and "This Land is Your Land" returned the songs from the realm of the overly familiar and provided a pathway to their original spirit.
Now living in Austin, where he's collected scads of music awards, LaFave is a relentless road dog and an unabashed Dylan devotee (nobody quite does "Leopardskin Pillbox Hat" quite the way he does) who released his finest album yet, Road Novel, just a few weeks ago. On this new album, LaFave extends his knack for covers that are both faithful yet completely his own (Leon Russell's "Home Sweet Oklahoma" and Dylan's beautiful "Buckets of Rain") and his original work: philosophizing ("You'll Never Know"), thoughtful treatments of the intersection of hearts and minds (the reggae-tinged "Hold On," "Heart of a Woman"), and straight-up barroom rousers ("You've Got That Right," "Long Time Since the Last Time"). If you're looking for a homegrown blend of the hot promise of downtown's neon lights and the sweet melancholy of the morning after, you may stop searching after you see Jimmy LaFave.
Jimmy LaFave plays Poor David's Pub on Friday, March 28.