He may be the only person in the country who feels at home in both a cramped Beit Shemesh shteibl and a seedy Haifa blues bar. But for Lazer Lloyd, both locations are just flip sides of the same beloved coin where his favorite people – “the Am” – reside.
More than a decade into his journey as haredi father of five by day and psychedelic guitar hero by night, Lloyd is more convinced than ever that his music is providing a necessary bridge for an Israeli society becoming increasingly fractured and full of animosity.
“My main role is to bring people together,” said Lloyd earlier this month sitting at a café in Jerusalem. “Music is my main love, but I’m really crying for the people of Israel – I think we’re in big danger.”
He continued, “I don’t know if there’s another person in my position – it’s not an egotistical thing – just the reality. I live in the hotbed of what most people consider the most ultra-Orthodox and radical neighborhood in Beit Shemesh.
And 99 percent of these people are fine, and some of them really unbelievable.
At the same time, I’m out every night in different parts of the country performing, and the people I encounter – the Israelis I meet – are just incredible. There’s just so much disinformation being disseminated.”
The 45-year-old Lloyd has been trying to set the record straight ever since adopting an observant lifestyle and moving to Israel from his native Connecticut in 1994. Then known as Lloyd Blumen, he left behind a promising music career in New York with his band The Last Mavericks, when he encountered and performed with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. The meeting transformed Blumen, and within weeks he had packed up and relocated to Israel.
Always a lover of heavy guitar blues in the Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn vein, Lloyd has spent the last 15 years plumbing the depths of his soul as a psychedelic bluesman, rich in spirituality and authenticity. While developing a fanatical following, Lloyd and his band Yood at the time remained relatively unknown outside of the small club circuit he and his band frequented. However, his fortunes began to change two years ago when he was asked to open an arena show for visiting British bluesman Snowy White.
In the audience were not only local celebrities like Shalom Hanoch but also 88 FM DJ Ben Rad, who developed a friendship with Lloyd and hooked him up with a promoter who began booking tours for him at venues around the country whose patrons had never seen a bearded, tzitzit-wearing hassid play guitar just like ringing a bell.
Around the same time, he was hired to perform at a birthday party for Shlomo Gronich, where one of the attendees was Ephraim Shamir. He ended up getting prescient advice from both Shamir and Rad, which have helped him elevate his status as Israel’s premier bluesman.
“Ephraim came up to me and said, ‘There’s been nothing like this in Israel. There have always been Israeli musicians trying to sound like the American blues, but how can it be that we have you in Israel and people don’t know about you?’” recounted Lloyd, adding that the two eventually were featured together last year on the Tal Friedman documentary series Guitar Heroes.
“Ben told me that I was better than Snowy White and said, “Lazer, you’re such a talented guitarist and songwriter, but you need to make a good-sounding album,’” Lloyd recalled.
Lloyd’s response was that he was barely surviving playing almost every night and raising his family, and that he didn’t have the money to invest in recording an album in a proper studio with the time required to do it well.
But Rad’s advice continued to ring in his ears, until he decided to take the drastic measure of financing the album by selling his beloved rare red Telecaster guitar. He posted a notice on his Facebook page, and what happened next could be considered by some to be fate.
But according to Lloyd, it was a clear case of divine intervention.
“It’s no different from my being able to constantly play,” explained Lloyd. “I get calls from some pretty big Israeli artists who ask me how I do it, who’s my booking agent and can they call him, too? I say that I’ll give them the name but he has some special requirements and I’m not sure he takes everyone.
When they say, ‘Who is it? I can meet the requirements,’ I tell them that I don’t have time for bookings, the Kadosh Baruch Hu does everything for me. And it’s true. I turn on the computer and see e-mails, and they’re from people asking me to play; I’m not doing a thing,” he said.
“And it’s the same with the album. I decided to sell the Telecaster. It’s a terrible thing to do, but what else can I do? What good is it if I don’t have the money to record? So after I posted it on Facebook, I got a message from Zev Posner, this guy in New York who I had become friends with and who loves my stuff.
‘Lazer, why are you selling your guitar?’ he asked. I explained that I needed the money to make a quality album, and he started asking me questions about how much it would cost. The next thing I knew, he sent me a message saying, ‘We’re going to be partners – you play, I pay.’ I’ve never even met him, and my wife was really nervous that something wasn’t right, but he wired money to the necessary people, and suddenly for the first time I could spend time in the studio without looking at the clock,” he said.
The result is My Own Blues, recorded in a power trio groove with accompanists Moshe Davidson on bass and Elimelech Grundman on drums and, for the first time, capturing the raw excitement and power of Lloyd’s shows.
While Lloyd is graduating to the next level of his career, with a showcase set coming up at Zappa Jerusalem on September 27 with special guest Shamir, in addition to a solo acoustic show this Wednesday at Café Avram, he doesn’t plan on changing his routine procedure of sitting with the audience before and after the show and exchanging views.
“There’s no backstage for me. I love to meet everyone, and everyone I meet is a hero. I’m so awed by the average secular Israeli,” said Lloyd. “When I go to kibbutzim, I find the sweetest people there, so holy and beautiful. But they don’t have a clue. They were never given a taste of what Judaism is. I try to explain to them that there may not be many people like me in the religious world, but there are wonderful people who are also beautiful. And that, in my opinion, is where the haredi world made a serious failure. By keeping their noses in the ground, they’ve created an unhealthy and dangerous environment. The people in my neighborhood need to know that ‘the Am’ out there is so unbelievable,” he asserted.
“On the other hand, I tell my friends on kibbutz that if yahadut becomes a thing of the past, we’re also in big trouble – you can’t be a Jewish person growing up in Israel and have no idea of your heritage.”
As much as Lloyd is intently focused on bridging the religious-secular divide, his music rarely preaches, preferring instead to draw people in through the spirituality and soulfulness of the songs instead of explicitly focusing on religious themes.
“When my neighbors ask me why I don’t call on my listeners to make tshuva, I say, ‘Brothers, I do – but it’s you that needs to make tshuva; you’re just not listening to me,’” he said with a laugh.
“Our job as Jews is to love our fellow Jews and do acts of kindness. If a Jew decides from there to make a change in his life, that’s his decision – it’s between the Jew and Hashem. I don’t try to give a religious message in my music but an emotional one. People are looking for something real. I’m not a very good entertainer, but I do try to be real.”