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 an interpretive 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,” 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 tunes 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” to a reflective seven-minute stretch that mines a very different vein than the Byrds’ well-known 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.
The backing crew includes LaFave’s core band — guitarist John Inmon, keyboardist Stefano Intelisano, bassist Glenn Schuetz and drummer Bobby Kallus — but many other top local musicians took part as well, including Warren Hood, Kym Warner, Andrew Pressman, Katie Marie, Larry Wilson, Will Taylor and Brian Standefer.
Though “Peace Town” includes no new LaFave originals, he did revisit two of his own songs from older albums: “Ramblin’ Sky” from 1997’s “Road Novel” and “Minstrel Boy Howlin’ at the Moon,” which appeared on the 1988 cassette release that largely introduced him to Austin audiences shortly after he moved here from his native Oklahoma. “Minstrel Boy” strikes to the heart of LaFave’s artistic essence: “You know that you’ve got to always sing your song/ Someday it may take you where you really need to be/ Where roman candle people explode across the night so beautifully.”
Sometimes “Peace Town” can be 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 on “Peace Town” 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 (who plays on all 20 tracks) and South Austin Moonlighters mainstay Phil Hurley leading the way. 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 town that also works as a bittersweet farewell to everything 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.”
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
Eliza Gilkyson, “Secularia” (Red House). Now nearly a dozen records into a fruitful tenure with renowned folk label Red House, Gilkyson is producing the best music of her career. Her 2014 album “The Nocturne Diaries” got nominated for a Grammy, and “Secularia” might be even stronger. As the title hints, spirituality is a central theme here, but it’s a relationship that transcends the bounds of organized religion. Indeed, on “In the Name of the Lord,” Gilkyson laments the state of the world as it relates to professed but not practiced faith. “We watch the empire’s epic fail, on shiny hand-held screens,” she sings, concluding in the chorus, “and it’s all in the name of the lord.” Darkness turns to light often on “Secularia,” though: In “Lifelines” she begins with the realization that “the center cannot hold,” but then looks forward: “Out of the nighttime, like minds turn toward the dawn.” Musically, “Secularia” travels further down a path Gilkyson has long followed, grounded in folk music but embroidered with rich atmospheric accents. Her son Cisco Ryder Gilliland returns as producer, deftly blending the contributions of Austin aces including Mike Hardwick, Warren Hood, Kym Warner, Chris Maresh and the Tosca String Quartet: Prominent vocal cameos come from gospel singer Sam Butler on “Sanctuary,” Shawn Colvin on “Conservation” (one of two songs featuring lyrics adapted from Gilkyson’s parents), and the late Jimmy LaFave on the traditional folk classic “Down By the Riverside.” Release show July 27 at Stateside at the Paramount. Here’s the opening track, “Solitary Singer”:
Nichole Wagner, “And the Sky Caught Fire.” The follow-up to last year’s EP “Plotting the Constellations,” Wagner’s first full-length record establishes her as one of Austin’s most promising young singer-songwriters. At times Wagner turns up the electric energy, as on the bluesy “Dynamite” and the more pop-oriented “This Kind of Love.” Elsewhere, she goes for a quieter vibe centered on acoustic guitar and piano, notably on “Yellow Butterfly” and “Fires of Pompeii,” the latter a duet with Nashville troubadour Rod Picott. Producer Justin Douglas gives the record a sonic consistency and professionalism with help from musicians including Will Sexton on guitar. Wagner wrote or co-wrote (with Terry Klein and Kristin Kirkpatrick) nine of the disc’s 10 songs, the lone exception being an exquisite cover of Warren Zevon’s “Reconsider Me.” Release show July 14 at Townsend. Here’s a lyric video for the track “This Kind of Love”:
- JULY 20: Ume, “Other Nature,” in-store July 17 at Waterloo Records.
- JULY 20: Belle Sounds, “The Sea Within,” release show July 21 at One-2-One Bar.
- JULY 27: Israel Nash, “Lifted,” release show July 27 at Scoot Inn.
- JULY 27: Cody Jinks, “Lifers.”
- JULY 29: Madi Meeks, “For You” EP, release show July 28 at Carousel Lounge.
- AUG. 3: Kevin Galloway, “The Change” (Nine Mile), release show Aug. 3 at Continental Club.
- AUG. 9: Ben Ballinger, “Live at the Cactus Cafe” EP, release show Aug. 9 at Cactus Cafe.
- AUG. 17: Joe Ely, “The Lubbock Tapes: Full Circle” (Rack ’Em).
- AUG. 17: Jeremy Nail, “Live Oak.”
- AUG. 23: Mike Schoenfeld, “Little Feet” EP, release show Aug. 23 at Kitty Cohen.
- AUG. 24: White Denim, “Performance” (City Slang).
- AUG. 24: Teddy Glass, “Nights and Weekends.”
- AUGUST: Saents, self-titled EP.
- SEPT. 7: Ghostland Observatory, “See You Later Simulator,” playing Bat Fest Aug. 18.
- SEPT. 14: Asleep at the Wheel, “New Routes.”
- SEPT. 14: Gina Chavez, “Lightbeam” EP, release show Sept. 15 at Antone’s.
- SEPT. 21: Western Youth, self-titled.
- SEPT. 21: Jonathon Zemek, “Hillcrest.”
- SEPT. 28: Jerry David DeCicca, “Burning Daylight” (Super Secret).
- SEPTEMBER: Band of Heathens, “A Message From the People Revisited.”