Jimmy LaFave’s ‘Peace Town’ a heart­felt farewell from the Austin singer

Austin American-Statesman - - Music -

For about a year be­fore his death from can­cer in May 2017, Austin troubadour Jimmy LaFave was earnestly work­ing in the stu­dio on a fi­nal batch of songs that would suc­ceed him. He’d hoped to record 100 tracks; in the end, there was time for 20. “Peace Town,” the re­sult­ing two-disc set, is out this week, mark­ing what would have been his 63rd birth­day.

With a voice that could soar to hit the high notes even as a touch of raspy growl seeped through to re­veal his pas­sion, LaFave was per­haps known even more as a singer than as a song­writer. That’s the pri­mary fo­cus here: Most of “Peace Town” finds LaFave putting his own spin on tunes both well-known and ob­scure as he turns to some fa­mil­iar sources along with a few bril­liant sur­prises.

Fore­most among the lat­ter is the open­ing track, Pete Town­shend’s “Let My Love Open the Door.” A top-10 hit from Town­shend’s 1980 solo de­but, it’s not a song that would have seemed a nat­u­ral fit for LaFave. But the lyrics clearly spoke to him, and the rad­i­cally re­cast ar­range­ment is a thing of beauty: It’s less rhyth­mic but more melodic, LaFave’s voice ra­di­at­ing amid an ex­quis­ite swirl of gui­tar and piano runs.

An­other im­me­di­ate stand­out is “When the Thought of You Catches Up to Me,” a top-10 coun­try hit for for­mer Un­cle Walt’s Band bassist David Ball on his 1994 solo de­but “Thinkin’ Prob­lem.” A ten­der num­ber that de­mands a great singer, this one was more in LaFave’s nat­u­ral wheel­house. He gets all of it, com­ing close to the beau­ti­ful bal­ladry of “Never Is a Mo­ment,” per­haps LaFave’s best-known orig­i­nal com­po­si­tion.

The ti­tle “Peace Town” comes from a song LaFave cre­ated by putting his own mu­sic to archived lyrics of Woody Guthrie, a now-com­mon col­lab­o­ra­tive ex­er­cise LaFave kick­started more than two decades ago when he helped fel­low Austin folkie Slaid Cleaves get “This Morn­ing I Am Born Again” pub­lished with Guthrie’s es­tate. The med­i­ta­tive ti­tle track is the best of three Guthrie/LaFave tumes here, along with the steady-groov­ing “Sal­va­tion Train” and “Side­line Woman,” an acous­tic blues num­ber.

LaFave was renowned for his il­lu­mi­nat­ing cov­ers of Bob Dy­lan songs, and the three he serves up on “Peace Town” rank with the best he’s ever done. He hits Dy­lan in the ’60s (“My Back Pages”), ’70s (“You’re Gonna Make Me Lone­some”) and ’80s (“What Good Am I”), con­nect­ing deeply on each one and slow­ing “My Back Pages” down into a re­flec­tive seven-minute stretch that mines a very dif­fer­ent vein than the Byrds’ well­known ra­dio-hit ver­sion.

Also near the seven-minute mark is the Band’s “It Makes No Dif­fer­ence,” sung with such soul­ful res­o­nance by Rick Danko on the orig­i­nal that it’s un­wise for most artists to at­tempt it. In LaFave’s case, though, this is a song we needed to hear him sing; he does it jus­tice, with help from back­ing vo­cal­ists Jaimee Harris and Jane Ellen Bryant, who ap­pear on six other tracks here.

Some­times “Peace Town” can be a bit dif­fi­cult to lis­ten to. It’s ad­mirable that LaFave tack­led Butch Han­cock’s epic “Al­ready Gone,” but you can sense the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of Jimmy’s health in the record­ing. Han­cock’s songs de­pend so heav­ily on his lyrics that the track loses some of its im­pact when LaFave’s en­ergy wanes and his voice trails off at the end of sev­eral lines.

And yet, one of the most tri­umphant mo­ments fea­tures no vo­cals at all. Listed sim­ply as “Un­ti­tled,” it’s the next-to-last track on the al­bum. We hear LaFave count it off with a steady “one-two-three-four” be­fore the band launches into a glo­ri­ously up­beat in­stru­men­tal num­ber, the gui­tars of Jimmy’s nephew Jesse LaFave and South Austin Moon­lighters main­stay Phil Hur­ley lead­ing the way.

The mo­ment is deeply poignant: Is this track un­ti­tled and in­stru­men­tal be­cause Jimmy never had a chance to put words to it? If so, it shows what we will for­ever more be miss­ing: his voice.

The fi­nal num­ber, Tim Eas­ton’s “Good­bye Am­s­ter­dam,” serves as a sort of de­noue­ment, an ode to a city that works as a bit­ter­sweet farewell to all that has come be­fore. “I never want to let you go,” LaFave sings wist­fully, “but I hope you’ll un­der­stand, I won’t be gone too long.”

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