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