By Ben Shalev
New York-born blues musician Lazer Lloyd says his life has been full of miracles – such as encountering the charismatic Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and, recently, finding a fan willing to underwrite his latest CD.
At 6:30 in the evening, as Lazer Lloyd’s old Suzuki approaches Hadera on its long trip north to Mitzpe Hila, the man who invited Lloyd to perform at the event in that northern community phoned. “Lazer, I just want to let you know it’s raining really hard here,” said the man, named Mark.
“Of course, there has to be a deluge – it’s because I am coming!” replied Lloyd merrily, in heavily American-accented Hebrew. “Last week I performed in Mitzpe Ramon and there were such big floods there my car almost drowned. Even the camels were afraid to go outside.”
Mark, who knows Lloyd’s hippie-like soul, wanted to be sure the blues guitarist would be on time for the performance.
“It’ll be fine,” Lloyd assured him, “but let’s talk about the important things: Have you warmed up the arak yet?”
Two hours later, in the small pub at Mitzpe Hila (which is in fact a nonprofit members’ club ) Lloyd stood on stage, quickly checked the sound – and then waxed poetic about the quality of the Turkish arak that had been served to him. At 9 P.M., an hour and a half before the start of the performance, the bottle was already half-empty, and Lloyd wandered around the pub hugging everyone who came in. “Eitan! I’m crazy about you.” “Amir, how I love you!!” “Jackson, my man, I missed you! I’m crazy about you!” “Daniella, what fun to see you! I love this place so much!!”
The most remarkable thing about this outpouring of emotion was that Lloyd had only seen these people once before – and remembered their names. That had been around four months earlier – two days after soldier Gilad Shalit, a resident of this Galilee community near the Lebanon border, had been released from Hamas captivity. There had been a special atmosphere at the moshav pub that night. Lloyd and his band played for three and half hours and turned the place into a hive of hot blues. Several of those who had been present that night at the pub recalled Lloyd’s performance as both amazing and unforgettable.
Would Lloyd succeed in replicating the power of that night in this performance, in which he would be performing solo, without backup? And wouldn’t it be a good idea for him to slow down a bit with the arak?
Lloyd, whom some people call “the Hasidic blues man” (a label he doesn’t like ), loves to talk about miracles. The sound balance at the Mitzpe Hila pub was sorted out without a hitch? It’s a miracle. The soundman’s console didn’t get wet in the rain? A miracle. They invited him to perform at Mitzpe Hila the week Gilad Shalit was released? A miracle. But the biggest miracle of all that has happened recently to Lloyd is the one that enabled him to record his new, second disc, “My Own Blues.” He had pondered making such an album for some time, but didn’t have the means to pay for it. He wanted to record at a good studio, and that costs money.
Lloyd is the father of five children and his performances in small clubs do not make him a wealthy man. Until not long a ago he drove an old Skoda, which he was trying to sell for NIS 4,000. In the meantime, he had bought the Suzuki, for NIS 10,000. How was he going to pay for a studio? Help from a record company was not even a long shot: The Israeli blues market is not exactly a gold mine and in any case Lloyd, a disciple of the late Shlomo Carlebach – the progressive Hasidic rabbi who loved singing – does not approve of record companies in principle.
“Rabbi Carlebach used to say there are two kinds of record companies: the big thieves and the small thieves,” he explains. “The rabbi said he always landed with the big thieves, so he never had to face the challenge of what to do with the money.”
So how would Lloyd pay for his disc? He decided to sell some of his guitars, among them his favorite Fender Telecaster. He advertised this on his Facebook page and invited people to come. But then he received an e-mail from a wealthy American, who had heard Lloyd’s music online and had become a fan.
“Why are you selling the Telecaster?” asked the man. “How much money do you need to make the disc?”
Lloyd gave an estimate – and the man replied: “Just tell me where to send the money.”
“Heaven opened up for me,” says Lloyd, his eyes gleaming. “After all those years of work and prayer, at long last I could do it properly.”
When he says “properly,” he means a number of things. First of all, that the [double] album would have two parts: electric and acoustic.
“Because that’s Lazer. Those are my two sides: the big, strong side of electronic blues and the relaxed Mississippi style – the way I sound when I sit and play by myself at home. I felt a need for expressing both sides, the way it is with Neil Young.” He goes on to reminisce about attending a performance of that well-known American singer, which he says was the best he’d ever seen in his life. He also tells about a friend who was a roadie on a Young tour. “He told me that when they were on the road Neil would get off the bus with a backpack in the afternoon and tell them: Pick me up here in the morning. What a person! I am crazy about him!”
Another thing that was important to Lloyd during the recording of the disc in Tel Aviv was that the music be recorded live, without “enhancements” – various elements that are tacked on afterward.
“It’s the blues,” he says. “When you listen to Robert Johnson or Blind Lemon Jefferson, you hear a man and a guitar connected. You hear something wild, not processed. And if the singing doesn’t sound the best, that’s okay. I am a heart person, not a throat person.”
What do you mean?
“It means that when you come to hear Lazer, you’re not coming to hear beautiful singing. I don’t have anything against it, but it’s not me. I want to pour my heart out on the stage. Not the most beautiful, but the most real. Like Johnny Winter, the singer I love most in the world. Did you know I was once the warm-up for him?”
“The truth is that I’m just boasting. He came to play at the college I went to and I played in the band there . I also warmed up for Prince. That doesn’t mean Prince called me and said, ‘Lloyd, I want you to be my warm-up.’”
Lazer Lloyd was born 45 years ago in New York, as Lloyd Blumen. His father was a guitarist and Lloyd relates that at the start of the 1960s he played with Paul Simon. “It was almost Simon and Blumen instead of Simon and Garfunkel,” he chortles as the Suzuki approaches the Yagur Junction.
Beethoven and blues
For his part Lloyd started playing guitar when he was bar-mitzvah age. He played in a band that did covers of hits from the 1950s and tried a bit of jazz – but fell in love with the blues. For some reason, however, he went on to study classical music in college.
“Joints every day,” is how he describes his days there. When for his final paper he was asked to compare seven of Beethoven’s symphonies, he submitted poems to his professor describing what he felt when he listened to the great composer’s music. “I got a D minus,” he laughs.
“All I wanted to do was sit in my room and play blues, but even when I was doing that I felt I wasn’t finding what I was looking for. And then I saw an item on television about B.B. King. The interviewer asked him how he chose his backup musicians and King replied: ‘I don’t listen to their playing. I take them to a bar, I drink with them, I talk with them and if I see they are good people I know they will be good musicians.’
“At that moment I said: This is it. Enough of playing 10 hours a day. You need to make a switch … To try to get to the depths of the soul. And then the big miracle happened.”
Lloyd is referring to his encounter with Rabbi Carlebach, in 1993. The younger man was then living in Manhattan and was in advanced negotiations with Atlantic to record a debut album by his band, The Last Mavericks (“It was like Stevie Ray Vaughan meets Bruce with a bit of a grungy sound”).
“Someone asked me if I would accompany Rabbi Carlebach on guitar and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it, but I’m not keen on rabbis or Jewish music.’ The only connection I had to Judaism then was that I knew my grandmother had been observant.”
The encounter with Carlebach turned Lloyd’s world upside down. “First of all, he gave me a big hug, which I haven’t forgotten to this day,” he recalls. “I felt like I was face to face with a person who loves the world. And I was also turned on by the music. I heard a bluesy core in the niggunim [Hasidic melodies] as well. That kind of sound of the soul, which is stuck in the body and wants to get free and get out − you hear it in B.B. King and you hear it in the niggunim of the Ba’al Shem Tov,” Lloyd explains, referring to 18th-century rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, considered the founder of Hasidism.
Carlebach, who died the following year, gave Lloyd recordings from old performances of his and Lloyd was overjoyed when he heard them. “I don’t understand Yiddish,” he says, “but every word touched me. He pours out his heart there. There’s a climax of crying and a climax or joy. Anyone who hears this and doesn’t cry needs to get his heart checked.”
A week later Lloyd told his band he was resigning and several months after that, he was in a yeshiva in Jerusalem. “I make changes fast,” he quips.
In Israel, Lloyd got married, established a family, moved to Beit Shemesh, where he still lives, and began performing. He made the most money in his early years in the country, with a band called Reva L’Sheva (“Carlebach meets The Grateful Dead”), which went on tour in the United States. In 2005 he issued his first album with the help of Ofir Leibovitz of the Israeli rock band Nikmat Hatraktor.
Lloyd’s name began to blink brightly on the radar of blues lovers in Israel when, about two years ago, he was the warm-up act for the performance by English guitarist Snowy White in Tel Aviv. From the first chord, he says, “there was a huge connection with the audience [which included, among others, Shalom Hanoch and broadcaster Ben Rad of 88 FM, who since then has played Lloyd frequently]. There was magic. After the performance, everyone was all over me. I realized I’d stolen the show from Snowy.”
Lloyd really is an extraordinary performer, and his recent show at Mitzpe Hila − in front of several dozen devotees (Shalit did not come, though Lloyd prayed he would) was not only a huge pleasure musically speaking, but also a rare sight in pure human terms. Of course it didn’t hurt that he is an excellent guitarist and a good singer, but Lloyd’s most important asset is his personality, and his amazing ability to connect with the people who are listening to him and tell them his story. In this respect he truly is a blues man.
“It’s no big deal. I come from there. In America there are millions of people like this,” he says modestly. “It will be like an Israeli playing Mizrahi music in Connecticut. There, people will think he is a genius.”
Enchanting and liberating
During the first moments of Lloyd’s performance it seemed that he was too drunk from the arak to be able to concentrate, but it quickly became clear that even though he was intoxicated he was both focused and in control. The drinking, it emerged, enables him to open up completely, drop all inhibition and pour out his heart the way he loves to do. At times he even came down from the stage and sat on the laps of people in the audience − women as well as men − while continuing to play. On paper this sounds disturbing, but in fact it was enchanting and liberating.
Lloyd also told some funny stories (for example, about how he fools policemen who stop him on the road to check his blood alcohol level: he sticks the straw into his beard and blows). He entertained the audience with the skill of a stand-up comedian, and then from time to time turned serious, extinguished the laughter and sunk deep into the blues (as in the case of an anti-war song that developed into an excellent one-man jam that went on for 20 minutes).
After more than two hours of blues, Lloyd moved into niggunim. It was already 1 A.M. by then and over half the audience, more lovers of blues than of Jewish music, went home. The few who remained earned a hug at the end of the performance.
On the way back from the north, Lloyd slept most of the way, but at 4 A.M., when his driver – myself – got out of the car, he had to drive himself another hour to Beit Shemesh. The next day he reported that when he reached town a police car stopped him: “But they didn’t hassle me. I didn’t need to use the trick with the straw. A miracle!”