Hasidic Musician Lazer Lloyd Sings Black Hat Blues
Photo: Yocheved Seidman
(JTA) — If it hadn’t been for Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Lazer Lloyd thinks he would’ve been famous by now. On the other hand, he figures that by now, he’d probably also be dead.
Back in 1994, Lloyd was a rising young blues musician with a deal at Atlantic Records when he met the famed songwriter and spiritualist, who invited him to join a musical tour in Israel.
“I was a really crazy blues rock’n’roller,” he recalls. “I had a lot of light, but my personality was like fire. I would go into a bar to play a show, and I could light the whole place up, but it would never end.”
Instead, his tour with Carlebach set him on a journey that led him to embrace Hasidism and move to Israel. It also brought him to the green room of The Mint, a small music club in Los Angeles where he is about to close out a West Coast tour that ran from November 15 to November 24. A well-established blues guitarist in Israel, Lloyd, 48, has been actively touring in Europe and the United States for the past year and a half, trying to build an audience. He mixes gigs at synagogues and Jewish community centers with shows at mainstream music clubs, like the Mint.
Lounging in jeans, a purple shirt and a black felt hat, sporting glasses and a bushy brown beard edged with gray, Lloyd (born Lloyd Paul Blumen) makes the merger of Hasidism and the blues sound perfectly natural. For him, it all came down to the flat five.
The flat five refers to the taking the fifth note in an eight-note scale and flattening it by a half-tone, creating a distinctively mournful sound. It’s a sound that appears prominently both in the blues and in European Jewish music. When Lloyd first heard Carlebach play a song with that flat five, he demanded to know why Carlebach was playing the blues. Carlebach explained that in fact it was a song by the Baal Shem Tov, and Lloyd was hooked.
“[Carlebach] was giving over the hasidut, and the hasidut was all about connecting through music and how to connect to people, and really was how to connect to the blues — how to heal a broken heart,” says Lloyd, using the Hebrew term for Hasidism. “Everyone has their own blues, and everyone’s heart is broken.”
He adds, “In this life, you got God and you got women. King David, he’s writing the same thing.”
As Lloyd speaks, his bassist for the evening rolls in, slit-eyed and reeking of marijuana. Lloyd greets him warmly. Although this evening he is content to stick with water, Lloyd is not generally a teetotaler.
As he later explains to the audience onstage, “I’m used to drinking a little bit of whiskey, but I just toured Russia three weeks ago and my liver is still recovering.” He then recites a bracha into the microphone and sips his water.
Of course, as Lloyd points out backstage, living the blues and living Hasidic both involve alcohol.
“In Hasidism, taking l’chaim, taking a little drink is a thing. You put a little wine in, and the secrets come out. You just have to know not to cross the border.”
For Lloyd, Hasidism and the blues both connect to the same thing — trying to connect to the heart of emotions, to feel and to be present more fully.
“Before going to Israel, I’d have so many thoughts when I’d play, about the notes and everything. When I got to Israel, I’d get on the stage — I’d just close my eyes. I’d say, I’m just dropping the reins, letting the horses go.”
When Lloyd plays the blues onstage, it’s a full body-and-soul experience, as he bounces, bobs, nods and pulses to the music — when he solos, he closes his eyes and lets himself plunge into the music, shaking his head in blissful ecstasy, or grimacing as he shreds a particularly nasty passage.
“Rebbe Nachman” — of Breslov, an old Hasidic leader — “was the master of hitbodedut, which is an art of how to get deep into your heart and how to be in touch with your emotions. When you’re a musician, you have to be able to do this, to connect to people, to heal people.”
That focus on connection, for Lloyd, is paramount. He says he wants his five children to meet all kinds of people, and to make their own decisions about the kind of life they want to live. He professes little interest in tying them to a particular sect or creed.
“I keep away from boxes, sects. I’m a little Sufi, I’m a little apostolic. I connect to good people — there’s good things to learn from good people.”