Higher ground

Higher ground

A blues guitarist bares his Jewish soul

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Lazer Lloyd says he’s guided by hasidic teachings, particularly the concepts of being out in the world with Judaism and finding ways to elevate the everyday. 
Lazer Lloyd says he’s guided by hasidic teachings, particularly the concepts of being out in the world with Judaism and finding ways to elevate the everyday. 

Blues guitarist Lazer Lloyd is a crossover artist, but in ways that many of his rabid followers on YouTube might never suspect: The chart-topping instrumentalist is a religious Jew, as comfortable playing at a Chabad House as he is at blues clubs and rock festivals.

Born in Connecticut and now living outside Jerusalem with his wife and five kids, Lloyd performs in a rich, soulful style that melds his secular influences (Stevie Ray Vaughan, Santana, B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix) with a spirituality derived in part from his mentor, the late rabbi, musician, and mystic Shlomo Carlebach.

“I try to leave a channel open when I play,” he said of the way Judaism influences his performances. “I just try to let go of the reins and let a bigger influence come through me.” 

His just-released “New Year’s Blues,” a 10-minute-plus instrumental piece, went viral, garnering more than 2.5 million hits on social media and 50,000 views on YouTube. His “Burnin’ Thunder” hit number one on the blues charts in July, and was the number two blues rock single in 2015. On his Facebook page, his releases regularly receive tens of thousands of hits. 

Swinging through New Jersey on a U.S. tour, he will play to both of his bases: first, in Millburn at the Chai Center of Millburn/Short Hills on Saturday, Jan. 30, and at Upstream Grille in Lake Hopatcong the next day.

‘Simha and spirit’

In a phone interview with NJJN from Chicago, where he started his American tour, the self-described hippie talked about his disillusionment with the “rock ’n’ roll lifestyle” and how he stumbled into Judaism through an encounter with a homeless man in Central Park. 

Raised in Madison, Conn., the former Lloyd Paul Blumen remembers going, or rather not going, to Hebrew school at a Reform synagogue, often sneaking off with his father to a sporting event after being dropped off by his mother. 

By the age of 15, he was playing East Coast gigs with his garage band, Legacy. He started singing and writing songs while studying music at Skidmore University in the 1980s, where he studiously stayed away from Hillel and the Jewish community.

“At Skidmore, I had a girlfriend who tried to get me to go to services for the High Holy Days. I was bored off my tuches. I still am, in any major shul.” He added, “If you want to be Jewish, you’ve got to stay out of shul.”

By 1994, he was traveling up and down the East Coast with his band, The Last Mavericks. He came to New York City for a showcase with Atlantic Records, but, he recalled, at that time “I was disappointed with the shallowness of my hippie friends. It was drugs and hormones with little message. Just reject society in a lazy, not constructive way.” 

Starting his own search for meaning, he picked up a copy of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), the collection of wisdom literature from the Mishna. He was reading it in Central Park one day and got into a conversation about it with a homeless man — who suggested he head over to the Millinery Center Synagogue in New York’s Garment District. There, Rabbi Hayim S. Wahrman saw his guitar and invited him to join Shlomo Carlebach two weeks later in concert. Asked if he knew who Carlebach was at that time, Lloyd said, “I didn’t know what day Shabbos was.” 

But he was impressed by Carlebach’s performance. “I never saw anyone singing with his whole heart, one minute happy, dancing — the next mourning, dying. The depth of emotion was extremely moving. It was real,” he said.

His trajectory shifted 180 degrees. He agreed to travel to Israel with Carlebach to play, and never came back. Carlebach passed away in 1994, less than a year later.

Lloyd believes his turnaround saved his life. “I probably would be dead; that’s the reality,” he said, pointing to the link between the AIDS epidemic and heavy drug use. “Many of my friends who kept going [in that world] are not alive today. It’s just the lifestyle.”

Often called Israel’s King of Blues, he insists he’s better known outside his adopted country. “Blues and rock ’n’ roll is not a big market in Israel,” he said. Still, he performed for a decade with the Israeli jam band Reva l’Sheva before releasing his first folk-rock CD, Higher Ground, in 2004. His seventh release, My Own Blues, was named best blues album by the Israeli Blues Society in 2012. In June 2015, he put out Lazer Lloyd; the CD was in the top three on the Roots Music Report’s blues rock album chart through the summer.

Lloyd continues to be guided by hasidic teachings, he said, particularly the concepts of being out in the world with Judaism and finding ways to elevate the everyday. But he also studies other religions, and finds them helpful. 

“I’m unorthodox,” he said. While he follows “whatever is said in the Shulhan Aruch” — the code of Jewish law — his distaste for synagogue has not dissipated. “Every time you have something institutionalized, it gets stale,” he said. “Today, look at Orthodox Judaism. It’s a black-and-white world. There are a lot of good people in it, but it’s not getting out into the world. It’s entrapped itself. The world wants to know what Jews have to say. Nothing will change until the Jewish people go and give the world simha and spirit. That’s what we need to do.” 

And that’s where he sees his role. 

“The world is waiting and music is a tool that can do much,” he said. 

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