In music, as in life, there's a big difference between being a character and possessing character. It's a distinction that bandleader Jerry Lightfoot appreciates. As the earnestly focused guitarist fronting The Essentials and a longtime behind-the-scenes force in the unification of local blues culture, Lightfoot has earned a reputation among musicians and fans for an uncommon depth of personal integrity.
It's that "dues-paid" intangible that separates his live performances from those of the mere characters that come and go on the blues-rock scene. And it's the defining quality inherent in Lightfoot's recently released second CD, Better Days (Age Out Records), a beautiful ten-track testament to the power of catharsis and healing via the musical process.
"All blues is about developing character. It's a scary concept, because the blues is about honestly singing what's in your soul and what's in your heart," Lightfoot says. "And not just everybody's comfortable with that. It all starts with finding out who you really are."
An almost weekly presence in Houston clubs through most of the '80s and '90s, Lightfoot has developed a large following here. But since he relocated to Austin two years ago his hometown fans have had far fewer opportunities to see him play, all the while anticipating the release of the new CD.
The completion of Better Days was long-delayed. First there was the painstaking attention to the details of songcraft and production, then a succession of personal tragedies. Last year Lightfoot suffered the deaths of both his father and son within a four-month span. But the 47-year-old musician has transcended frustration and grief to fashion his most powerful artistic statement yet.
Says pianist David Vest: "As a guitar player, a songwriter and a performing artist, Jerry Lightfoot may be the most ambitious musician now working in Texas. I don't mean ambitious like River Oaks. Ambitious like Rimbaud. Like Dylan. Like Hazel Dickens or Bill Monroe." Vest recognizes in Lightfoot that rare sense of mission, a purity of vision that seems to inform each song.
"You hear Jerry play live, and you know he's going for it every night. Nobody aims higher, reaches deeper or asks more from the people who play with him," Vest says. "He has this conception of the blues as a spiritual path. He believes in the nobility of the calling, and if you play this music, he expects you to have it, too."
That unwavering devotion has inspired not only Lightfoot's music but also his personal relationships with a number of older African-American players, products of Houston's indigenous blues culture. Over the past two decades probably no other musician has collaborated so often and so effectively to bridge the double gap (racial and generational) between the old-school Houston bluesmen and the rock-weaned white audience.
Some of Lightfoot's most noteworthy achievements in this regard include production of the initial sessions of Texas guitar legend Pete Mayes's comeback album, For Pete's Sake (Antone's), a 1998 nominee for a W.C. Handy Award. He also coaxed piano master Big Walter "The Thunderbird" into the studio to record a priceless bonus track for Lightfoot's excellent 1995 debut, Burning Desire (Connor Ray).
"People know I'd jump off a bridge for Jerry," says Big Walter, a former Peacock Records star now in his eighties. "He's been like a son to me."
Other Houston blues artists making guest appearances on that first Lightfoot CD included Joe "Guitar" Hughes, saxophonist Grady Gaines, and singers Trudy Lynn and Eugene Moody. "Lightfoot's been a big help to a lot of blacks," Hughes says. "He really loves the music."
And that support goes far beyond simply offering guest slots on records. As Hughes goes on to say: "Back when I had got discouraged and wanted to throw my guitar against the wall and quit, it was 'Foot that straightened me out. I had stopped bandleading, gotten disgusted with it. And he talked to me. It was at that point that I got revived, you know, in making my music. Because of him."
Another example of Hughes's deep respect for his friend can be found on the elder's 1996 release, Texas Guitar Slinger (Bullseye Blues). Of the 12 tracks that compose that CD, Hughes includes only one that he didn't write, a Lightfoot ballad called "Don't Turn Your Back on Me." Fittingly, that song resurfaces, in a potently remade version, as the lead-off number on Better Days.
In its new form, "Don't Turn Your Back on Me" highlights vocalist Jerry LaCroix, a long-haired veteran of collaborations with the likes of Edgar Winter, the Boogie Kings and other hippie-blues bands of yore. LaCroix is granted "special guest" billing on the CD cover, and his soulful exhortations are featured on a total of six tracks. Lightfoot, whose brilliant guitar work and songwriting generally outshine his own capable singing, enjoyed the results.
"It's just such a blessing, man, to be able to make music," he says. "To be able to create a song, write the lyrics and play a solo from your heart on it is just a wonderful thing. But when you have somebody like Jerry LaCroix sing your lyrics in a way that you know they were meant to be sung, really singing it from the place they came from, the bottom of the soul, it's just something else."
Indeed, LaCroix's bluesy pipes contribute a crowning touch to the album. On the darkly pulsating title track, he huskily breathes the verses, voice slowly swelling, until each stanza climaxes with the shouted declaration, "Here's to better days." And on the funky shuffle "Bye Bye" (one of only three songs not written or co-written by Lightfoot), LaCroix transforms the simplistic chorus ("Bye-bye, baby, bye-bye") into a sonic poem of its own. His earthy vibrato and rage-tinged bellows communicate pure emotion, beyond words, as he plays off a dirty bass line from Eugene "Spare Time" Murray and soul-stirring solos from Pee Wee Stephens on piano, Steve Krase on harmonica and Lightfoot on guitar.
But while LaCroix's singing energizes much of the disc, there are many other fine performances. Lightfoot delivers his own gritty testimony on the original, "Never Get Caught Again (Doug's Blues)," which evolves into a duet with Houston's Carolyn Wonderland. On the chorus they sing, "Cryin' Lord have mercy / And please make it stick / If you get me out of this one / I'll never get caught again," evoking an Exile on Main Street style of righteous frenzy. And the slide guitar- and mandolin-accented treatment of Blind Willie McTell's "God Don't Like It," featuring singer MaryAnn Price (formerly one of the Hot Licks backing folk-hipster Dan Hicks), convincingly evokes old-timey gospel blues.
But the bright, shining moment on this album is the song "Always Sometimes." Fundamentally different, in tone and style, from anything Lightfoot has previously recorded, this song ultimately shows he's more than just a blues-rocker.
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Over loping syncopated percussion riffs in the opening bars, Lightfoot's voice gently emerges, stripped of any affectation, vulnerable, honest. It's backed softly by pedal steel, violin, organ, piano and acoustic guitar (plus dead-on harmony vocals from Tommie Lee Bradley-Jackson).
Against a dreamscape of sound, the lyrics are clearheaded and reflective. Lightfoot sings, "There is rust on my guitar strings / Dust on my radio / My heart feels as thin as my skin / My head reels, ready to explode." In an attempt to make sense of the dismal present, he turns to the past: "Sometimes I forget / That my deepest regrets / Come from a time / When the whole world was mine." Then he concludes with the realization (which recurs to end each stanza), "It's never always / But it's always sometimes." As observed by Vest, who plays piano on the track, "You hear a song like that, and you know the man wrote it to save his life."
"Singing about who you are, that's your offering to the world," says Lightfoot. "Blues is an aspect of that, probably the home of that. But you get out there and try to learn who you are, and it takes you to different places." As if to reaffirm his core musical orientation, Lightfoot includes a rollicking version of Powell St. John's "(I Will) Forever Sing the Blues" near the end of the disc. But Better Days, like Lightfoot's move to Austin, suggests that this native son is still committed to growth, a process that necessitates some change.
"This album is about closing some doors and opening some doors," he says. "There were some things, extremely hard times, and I had to place my faith in better days, you know.But I've stepped from that into enjoying some of those better days now."