Jerry Lightfoot's Band of Wonder with Vince Welnick and Carolyn Wonderland

Lightfoot gets a little help from his friends.

Occasionally there's something more for the earnest music fan, something beyond the pleasures inherent in a well-written, effectively performed album. It's the sense of deep satisfaction triggered by recognizing a favorite player's positive evolution from one project to the next. It's the thrill that comes from watching talent and passion blossom into an even more substantial, insightful and diverse artistry. And for those of us who've followed the development of native son Jerry Lightfoot, his latest CD delivers precisely that buzz.

Through most of the '80s and '90s, Lightfoot was a stalwart of the local blues-rock scene. As guitarist, singer and front man for the Essentials, he first documented his musical identity on the 1995 album Burning Desire, a collection mainly showcasing a blues foundation. After his migration to Austin, Lightfoot's 1999 release, Better Days, touched base with the blues but also included some expertly crafted ballads and other departures. Now with his third CD, Texistentialism, the expatriated bandleader (who now resides in Florida) continues to expand his range.

While the Lightfoot sound has always included talented keyboard players, the roles of the piano and organ are swelled on this new disc to great stylistic effect -- thanks in part to the bandleader's affiliation with Vince Welnick, who played with such rock heavyweights as the Grateful Dead, Todd Rundgren and the Tubes. The inventive way in which Welnick incorporates keyboards into these songs is simply wonderful. Moreover, Lightfoot wisely utilizes the considerable vocal skills of Houston's Carolyn Wonderland as lead singer on six of the ten tracks. It's a decision that gives this new chapter of Lightfoot's work a potent and entirely new sound. It also enables him to use his own lead vocalizing (on three tracks) for contrastive emphasis.

Lightfoot wrote or co-wrote seven of the tracks here, which range from the familiar "Handshake with the Blues" to introspective ballads such as "Generous to a Fault" and "Around and Between" (about the untimely death of Lightfoot's son Noah).

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Lightfoot pays tribute to his mentor Big Walter "The Thunderbird" by covering "Junior Jumped In," which originally surfaced back in the early 1950s. It's a bouncing, piano-based song that soars with a pair of wickedly effective guitar solos and a soul-stirring harmonica romp from former Essentials bandmate Steve Krase. It's pure Texas blues boogie, made for dancing and strutting.

There's also the eerie poetry of "Monkey Got a Gun," penned by Austin's Jim Franklin and featuring a muffled, raspy Lightfoot vocal that evokes Texas-fried Tom Waits. It's a bone-chilling, surrealistic rap recited over an atmospheric bass groove and sophisticated jazz chording on piano, all spiced by imaginative fills on both keyboards and guitar. It's unlike anything Lightfoot has ever recorded -- and indicative of some of the new twists and turns on the artistic path he's following.

Big-time fame and fortune may never meet this now middle-aged musi- cian, who's been banging guitars and howling the blues since he was a teen- ager in Pasadena. But as Texistentialism proves, music business reality hasn't deterred Lightfoot's artistic growth and vision.

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