Jimmy Lafave's more a rock act than a folk one these days - he's come along way since it was just him strumming his guitar at Chicago House in Austin - but like Springsteen or Mellencamp, he's covering much of the same populist ground folkies cover. LaFave's roots are in Oklahoma, the birthplace of the original modern singer-songwriter, Woody Guthrie.
For those new to Lafave, he's like a red dirt Van Morrison; a vocal stylist who can stretch a single syllable into a glorious epic. Like Van the Man, he owes a lot to the repetitive phrasing of old R&B singers. Jimmy's sandpaper voice, however, is distinctively his own.
LaFave seems less obsessed with highways and open spaces in BUFFALO RETURN TO THE PLAINS than his last album HIGHWAY TRANCE. His third CD finds the artist emerging from that trance, realizing he is no longer young and acknowledging burnout. "I think I've been fooling myself my whole lifelong," he sings in the album opener, "Burden to Bear," "living life like a one night stand."
LaFave longs to believe in the road and its mythology of redemption. "Going Home" is a sweet lullaby to a dreamer asleep in the passenger's seat as they cross the prairie. The anthemic title cut celebrates the drifters of the great depression, praying they'll survive the era of strip malls and cable TV. That vision of renewal, however, seems hopelessly outdated in the album closer, "Worn Out American Dream."
There are two dreams in BUFFALO RETURN TO THE PLAINS, both equally American. One's the Horatio Alger ideal of upward mobility, while the other is the Kerouac/Whitman romance of downward mobility. Lafave surveys Newt Gingrich's America and realizes there's no romance left in poverty -just desperation. Same assessment goes for religion, money and politics.
The final assessment is that there is nothing left to believe in but self, and the artist is not so sure about that. LaFave is looking in as well as out when he sings, "Come on face your situation/It's just as desperate as it seems/You've got us lost inside the shuffle of /Your worn out American dream."
Musically, Lafave benefits from sticking with his own, road-hardened band instead of embellishing it with a lot of studio sideman. His Night Tribe features Rick Poss on guitars, Stewart Cochran on keyboards; Randy Glineson bass and Chris Massey on drums. Only ringers are Debra Peters on piano and accordion and ubiquitous Austin fiddler Gene Elders.
For all its virtues, the album leaves me questioning where Lafave goes after a CD that is mostly about dead ends. His patented mix of highway anthems, longing love ballads and roadhouse rockers has held up well for three CDs, but I'm not sure how far he can keep mining the same three veins. The ballads, in particular, get to be variations on a single melody and chord progression, depending more and more on pure vocal power to put them across. Here's hoping Jimmy Lafave finds a way out of his spiritual and musical cul-de-sac, and that buffalo may again teem with the wide open spaces within.
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