Lazer Lloyd has been dubbed Israel’s king of the blues, but, for the last few weeks, you could say his entire country has been singing the blues.
“The pain is so deep, we can’t even fathom it,” he said via Skype from his home in the ancient city of Beit Shemesh, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “We have rockets falling all over Israel. We had to go in the bomb shelter a lot. It’s very nerve-racking.”
Lloyd, who will perform in Encino on Aug. 21, said he feels sympathy for the Palestinian victims of the war, though he doesn’t necessarily blame Israel for their hardship.
“These people are suffering as well. The Arab countries use them as footballs; they keep them poor. They use these people as their tools,” Lloyd said.
Despite the daily fears of war, Lloyd is currently focused on recording a new album, which may become a double album, with one acoustic disc and one electric disc. The new album features old blues sounds with African elements thrown in — a nod to Israel as a crossroads of multiple continents and cultures.
“It sounds like someone playing an old Robert Johnson guitar together with an Egyptian oud — something really strange,” Lloyd said. “I’m trying to find out what my sound is. It’s always developing.”
The working title of the forthcoming album is “Burning Thunder,” and if that sounds downright biblical, it might be because Lloyd is a deeply spiritual person, sporting a long, salt-and-pepper beard and side locks that shake back and forth as he plays his guitar. He connects with the Chasidic movement, though he adds that he has Sufi teachers as well.
“I try to keep it real,” he said. “For me, to be Jewish is to be real. Religious is someone doing something because they did it yesterday. You want to be new each day.”
Lloyd grew up in a secular Jewish home in Connecticut as Lloyd Blumen — Lazer is his Hebrew name. He began playing guitar at 13 and started gigging at blues clubs at 16. He studied music at Skidmore College before moving to New York and recording demos for Atlantic Records. It was there that a chance encounter changed the course of his life.
“I met this homeless guy in Central Park. He ended up being a Jewish guy. I gave him a bagel and a few bucks,” Lloyd said. The man brought Lloyd to his synagogue and introduced him to the late Shlomo Carlebach, an Orthodox rabbi and prolific songwriter known as “The Singing Rabbi,” who specialized in reaching out to disaffected Jews.
“He was like the hippie guru of Judaism,” Lloyd said.
The two played a concert in Manhattan, and as Lloyd recounts, “I was just blown away. I never saw anyone sing like that or perform like that. He convinced me to come play with him in Israel.”
Carlebach died soon after, but Lloyd decided to stay in Israel. He made aliyah 20 years ago; for the past 16, he’s lived in Beit Shemesh. When he first arrived in Israel, there wasn’t much of a blues scene. He looked like an anomaly — an American observant Jew rocking out with an electric guitar. Now, he says, the blues are thriving in Israel:
“In the last 10 years it really opened up. Almost every night in Israel, you can find some kind of blues concert going on.”
Lloyd is married and has five children; his oldest, Yoseph, is 17 and plays keyboards, guitar and sings. So, would Lloyd recommend that his son follow in his father’s footsteps?
“I encourage him to follow in his footsteps,” Lloyd said with a laugh. “My parents told me to do what I think is my thing, and I want [my kids] to do what they think is their thing.”
Of course, a music career will have to come after Yoseph’s military service, which begins next year, and his father faces that fact with a heavy heart.
“I got a lot of kids that come to the concerts that were in the middle of the war. I got neighbors’ kids, I got family members. It’s very heavy. It’s really rough. The closest you get to living is when you feel you’re close to dying. On the one hand, it’s really bad. On the other hand, everything is just put into perspective on such a deep level. You have to find the light inside the darkness. That’s what the Jewish people are renowned for doing. But, as a father, it’s a scary thing.”
Lloyd credits his spiritual life with helping him see that light. Early blues musicians sang about God, and about their physical slavery and spiritual slavery. Lloyd sees his version of the blues as an extension of that era of music, and even reaching back to biblical times.
“King David, he [was] the first blues singer,” Lloyd said. “If you look in the Psalms, those words he sang there, he was speaking out about his personal struggle. He was also singing out about the struggle of the world. He sings about God’s struggle, about family problems, about women. This is the real blues context. It says he was playing instruments. We don’t know the real melody, but he was accompanying himself with the music and clearing his heart out.”
On this tour, Lloyd will be joined by the rhythm section of the Chicago Blues Kings, drummer Kenny Coleman and bassist Felton Crews, each an accomplished musician in his own right.
“It’s great working with him,” Coleman said of Lloyd. “He’s a gentlemen, and he loves his country. He’s living in a war zone. I often say that I’m in a war zone because I live in Chicago — we have a lot of killing here — but he’s really in it.”
Lloyd’s style ranges from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Coleman said, adding that he and Lloyd have played together in Chicago and Indiana. “He’s an excellent musician, and I can say that because I’ve worked with some of the best and some of the worst.”
This will be the first show in which Crews joins Lloyd on stage, and he said he’s looking forward to playing in a power trio. “We’ll provide him a nice horse to ride on into the groove,” Crews said. “We know how to fill it up. It’s our intent to give the music some feeling and some life and some energy.
“Music is like a recipe — every new ingredient you add is gonna change it,” Crews added. “So I’m looking forward to seeing how we mesh and what direction we’re gonna take.”
Lloyd often ends his live performances with a cover of Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah” (“The Hope”). As he tours the world, Lloyd said, he sees himself as an ambassador for Israel, and a messenger of healing and peace.
“I want to bring the light of Israel to the world,” he said. “Music is the way you have to do it.”
Lazer Lloyd will perform in Encino on Aug. 21, at a special concert and live recording session. Tickets are $25 and are available at Brown Paper Tickets. $5 of each ticket will be donated to Hadassah Medical Center in Israel.