A LaFave Rave

Jimmy LaFave upholds American musical tradition one song at a time.

That's obvious on Trail, which includes several tracks recorded in Europe. The audience at 1994's Frutigen Festival in Switzerland applauds so enthusiastically after "Positively 4th Street" that the spent LaFave responds with a humble "Oh, mercy." And LaFave's "The Perfect Combination" (about a girl who is "a little bit sugar, a little bit spice") is so thoroughly raucous, so full of Chuck Berry guitars and Jerry Lee Lewis piano, that the crowd gathered one night at the Renfe Club in Ferrara, Italy, must have thought they were in Cleveland.

But the majority of the performances on the album come from closer to LaFave's cherished home. There's an anguished version of Jimmy Cox's blues classic "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," wherein LaFave's gravelly voice--a perfect companion for the song's "champagne, cocaine and wine"--echoes off the walls of Nick's Club in Stillwater sometime back in 1984. Many of the cuts, including most of the album's Dylan tunes, were recorded at Austin's Cactus Cafe. And while it's intriguing to hear "Going Home," LaFave's reassuring love song to a woman who sleeps while he drives across a long prairie highway, recorded off of an Amsterdam radio show, some of the compilation's most moving moments are from various hometown recording sessions and radio broadcasts. "How It Must Remain," an aching, keyboard-laced admonition to a woman he loves but can't change himself for, was recorded in 1992 at what one affectionate Austin writer called LaFave's "Austin launching pad, the long-defunct Chicago House." In a rough 1985 recording of his complicated "Loved You Like Rainbows," as LaFave tries to express his feelings to a woman who "never could understand" how his love was like bright colors, his bandmates' lonely fiddle and mandolin reverberate along with a low-level hiss in a Stillwater studio. After "Burden to Bear," his meditation on loss and regret, in which he's helped out by a plaintive harmonica and bass line by Randy Glines, host Abby Goldstein introduces LaFave with a warm familiarity and calls Glines "Mr. Consistency." And in a live radio set recorded on Austin's KUT last year, LaFave is joined by Bohemia Beat labelmates Fracasso and Moore and a rousing chorus of other singers for a semi-ad-libbed, rollicking rendition of the traditional gospel "Hold On." At one point LaFave laughs that he can't read the lyrics, and later he has to yell out that they're coming up on the chorus--but the song more than accomplishes its inspirational mission. In all of these settings, LaFave is clearly among friends--musicians radio hosts, writers, audiences--and it's a testament to the communal nature of music-making.

The project was one Shumate had wanted to do for a while. "Back in the early days, I used to carry my portable DAT recorder around, and with the cooperation of the sound man, I would hook up to the board and see what I could get," he says. "Some of it was wonderful, and other people gave me tapes, and Jimmy had tapes he had made. I'd play these for people, and everybody agreed that it's so spontaneous it just ought to be put out. We ended up putting together eight CDs' worth of potential-candidate songs and sent them off to Jimmy and a couple of other people, and everybody who heard it was blown away. Jimmy got really excited when he heard the wealth of stuff, and he pulled out the kind of stuff that's somewhere in the basement, which was wonderful, and added another half-dozen real gems on the record. Eventually we paired it down to 31 cuts and came out with it. It's been received every bit as well as any of the studio records we've done, despite its obvious bootleggy quality. That adds to its charm."

"We went through a lot of tapes to put those songs on there," LaFave says. "We listened to hundreds of songs, and by the end, there were about fifty or sixty we liked a lot." For LaFave, the songs chronicle the privilege of living a life playing music. "They bring back the memory of where I was," he says. "That first song ['Positively 4th Street'] was our first trip to Switzerland, so it's a good memory, because I remember the crowd was really into it. That particular festival had the Subdudes and a lot of bands from all around the U.S.A., and it was a real fun concert.

"Most of the songs are like that--even some of the ones from the radio stations," he says. "They bring back good memories of places you've traveled with your music."

Woody Guthrie would know the feeling.

Jimmy LaFave. 8 p.m. Friday, June 18, Swallow Hill Music Hall, 71 East Yale Avenue, $13, $11 for Swallow Hill members, 303-777-1003.

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