The 2016 Israeli Jazz and World Music Fest got off to a rousing, spirited start when Lazer Lloyd, the Connecticut-born, Israel-based guitarist, took the stage at Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago on May 26.
“Chicago, are you ready to hear some blues?” Lloyd asked at the top of the show. After an emphatic response from the international crowd, the fleet guitarist and his bandmates (drummer Shannon Street and bassist Johnny B. Gayden) delivered two sets of staggering electric blues, informed by the emotional purity and technical mastery that, along with his salt-and-pepper beard and wispy sidelocks, have become Lloyd’s trademarks.
A classically trained guitarist who studied music at Skidmore College, Loyd brings an enraptured, mystical quality to his live performances, an attribute that might owe to his life off the bandstand. Lloyd is an observant Jew who moved to Israel two decades ago after a chance meeting with the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, a charismatic spiritual leader who pioneered a music-centered Jewish movement during the latter half of the 20th century.
In his onstage persona and through his heart-bearing style of play, Lloyd, who became religiously observant later in life, finds ways to creatively intertwine his passion for Jewish philosophy with his love of contemporary American blues.
“What they both have in common is a sense of humility,” said Lloyd in a backstage interview before his concert. “It’s a sense of emptying yourself out to be as honest and humble as possible. You see that in a lot of the old blues guys, and it’s the same thing the founder of Chasidic Jewish thought, the Ba’al Shem Tov, stressed in his teachings.”
Lloyd left no part of his creative persona unexposed during his performance at Buddy Guy’s, surveying songs from his decade and a half of recorded material. He soloed fiercely and smartly on “Rolling,” a minor blues shuffle from his 2012 album, My Own Blues, and engaged in frenetic rhythmic dialogue with his bandmates on the blues-funk tune “Keep Movin’,” from his 2014 album Insides Out (L.L.B.).
But it was on tracks from his most recent album, 2015’s Lazer Lloyd, that the guitarist sounded most confident and uninhibited. Within his massive sound, echoes of his musical influences rang loudly. The driving “Burning Thunder,” for example, found Lloyd channeling the fiery upper-register work of one of his heroes, Stevie Ray Vaughan, while “Time To Love,” with its beseeching lyrics expressed simply and honestly, served as an homage to Lloyd’s other major inspiration, B.B. King.
Produced by the Chicago-based label Lots of Love, Lazer Lloyd marks a stylistic departure from Lloyd’s previous studio album, 2013’s Lost On The Highway (Blues Leaf), which framed the guitarist within an Americana milieu. With its churning rhythms and electrified current, the new album represents the more ecstatic aspect of Lloyd’s art, which he says is better conveyed live.
At Buddy Guy’s, Lloyd, who sometimes begins shows without a set list, demonstrated a knack for reading the crowd’s energy for surges and dives, shifting between volume levels and rhythmic meters at a moment’s notice. Such sharp contrasts in intensity served only to vitalize Lloyd’s bandmates, who adeptly followed the guitarist over emotive hills and valleys.
Gayden, a regular in Albert Collins’ band, was especially receptive, carving wide swaths of sound for Lloyd’s swerving, narrative solos. And Street, a lieutenant with the Buffalo Fire Department in New York, used thunderous tom-tom rolls and whip-cracking snare blasts to provide searing accompaniment.
Lloyd’s lyrics, which the guitarist chanted crisply in a warm, embracing voice, added meaning to the momentum. As a songwriter, Lloyd’s emotional register is wide. Songs performed during the Buddy Guy’s set grappled with yearning and loss (his composition “Something Went Wrong” features the plaintive lyrics “I think when God made man, something went wrong”), but also with hope and positivity.
“In the Jewish world it says you’re always supposed to have two sides of the heart,” Lloyd said during the backstage interview. “One is always broken and crying, and the other is joyful and dancing. One serves the other. The blues is a very good tool to get in touch with your own suffering and your own challenge. You have to face it head on, and that’s what the blues does.”
On his most recent album, and at this show, Lloyd explored that duality with poise. He explained that, through the blues, the polarities of human expression can be reached.
“By playing the blues and singing the blues—that is an element of healing,” he said. “A lot of those famous blues songs when people were talking about the girl that’s not showing up or they came home and someone else was there—those were emotional things and people were dealing with emotional trauma—and a lot of those songs were written on the spot. But without the song they wouldn’t make it to the next level. They wouldn’t be ready to go on.”
The Israeli Jazz and World Music Festival, produced by the Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest, continues through Memorial Day weekend and beyond in various venues around Chicago.
Among the highlights: Lloyd will make a repeat appearance at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn, Illinois, on May 29, and fellow Israeli bluesman Guy King will make appearances at the Chicago Cultural Center and Andy’s Jazz Club on May 31. The trailblazing world-music band Yemen Blues will close out the fest at the Old Town School of Folk Music on June 2.