Jimmy LaFave,
Blue Nightfall
(Red House, 2005)

Jimmy LaFave, who is one of many roots-oriented singer-songwriters from the Austin scene (still vibrant after all these years), sings with a slightly nasal tenor. That voice, an intimate and appealing one, reminds one critic of a "slightly less ethereal Jesse Winchester," but to me it's more like an earthier Jimmie Dale Gilmore, his more prominent Austin fellow performer. Among Gilmore's influences is Roy Orbison -- a notable instance on exhibition in the edge-of-night romantic despair of "Blue Shadows" (on Gilmore's last solo, non-Flatlanders outing, One Endless Night, from a few years ago) -- and that's OK. I'm sure Orbison himself would have been knocked out, not peeved, if he'd lived long enough to hear what Gilmore does. Everybody, after all, is a creature of influences, and Gilmore has absorbed Orbison's, with others', into his bloodstream to generate an organic sound transcendentally his own.

No mistake, Blue Nightfall is listenable and pleasurable, with a cozily nourish quality that projects visions of twilight desert skies and brooding souls on lonely highways onto the listener's psychic movie screen. LaFave seems a decent sort. His song "Worn Out American Dream" -- not on this album; I heard it on the Philo collection Americana Road Warriors -- is as moving, in a soul-ripping sort of way, as any lament for the fallen nation of the early 21st century that anyone has written short of Bruce Springsteen. (The current era doesn't make one miss the sadly late Phil Ochs any less, either. It's amazing how current some of his songs seem today. Try "The War is Over.")

The problem with Jimmy LaFave is Van Morrison. Most of the songs here -- all but the first are LaFave originals -- sound like Morrison's slower tunes with different arrangements. Whereas Morrison punches up his sound with horns out of his beloved 1960s r&b and soul records, LaFave sets his muse within the country/folk/rock settings for which Austin could probably apply for a legal patent by now. When I heard the first cut for the first time, I thought it was a conscious bow to Morrison; even the title, "Revival" (written by Nashville songsmith Gretchen Peters), is like something Morrison would put at the top of a song. (Maybe he has; I admire Morrison's work but am an only occasional consumer of it.) The first line even mentions "Tupelo Street," which I took be a sly allusion to Morrison's early hit "Tupelo Honey." The second cut, "Sweet Sweet Love," turns out to be another Morrison sound-alike, even, again, unto the title. And that's just the start. Soon enough you're thinking, this can't be on purpose.

Another, mmm, problem -- if that's not too strong a word, as it maybe it is -- is those titles. I could swear I have heard every one of them before, tied to other, sometimes (though not always) superior songs. Besides the two mentioned above, consider these: "River Road," "Shining on Through," "Rain Falling Down" and -- so help me -- "When You Were Mine" and "Gotta Ramble." Nearly all of these, moreover, are relationship songs, nearly all melancholy ones, and though they are good of a kind, the sentiments feel a little worn, a tad too all-too familiar. We all know how many fine songs have been written and sung about love's highs, lows, ups, downs, easts, wests and all those other directions on the heart's landscape. I suspect, nonetheless, that the average Rambles.NET reader is here because he or she yearns to hear songs about other -- dare we say more provocative and original? -- matters, too.

In that regard the rockabillyish celebration "Bohemian Cowboy Blues," which has Jack Kerouac bathed in the glow of youth and the sunshine of road glory, is a refreshing change of pace. Yet the one masterpiece about Kerouac is set at the dark and desolate end of that same highway. Called "Jack's St. Pete Blues," it's written and sung by the maddeningly and unjustly little-known Tampa singer-songwriter Ronnie Elliott. You'll find it on his Hep CD (Blue Heart, 2003). All you need never to forget it is to hear it once. Now there's somebody Red House ought to be signing as soon as it can hunt him down and force a pen into his hand.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 21 May 2005

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