For someone whose self-proclaimed musical mission is to “bridge the gaps” between people, Lazer Lloyd is still meeting resistance from some quarters. Surely not from the staunch fan base that the hassidic rockin’ blues guitarist and band leader has forged over the last decade-plus of creating spiritually soulful musical experiences in every venue that would have him, but rather from those on both sides of the religious/anti-religious divide in Israel that are suspicious of his motives and message or just plain don’t like the looks of him.
“I’m in the middle of a political football,” the soft-spoken yet charismatic Lloyd says one afternoon recently while relaxing in a Ma’aleh Adumim backyard a couple of hours before a show that night at the Public outdoor pub in nearby Kfar Adumim outside of Jerusalem. “There are some places, more in the Tel Aviv area, that are not so happy about having a secular Israel falling in love with a haredi guy. Some PR people have outright told me, ‘Lazer, they don’t want you.’” Lloyd holds no grudges against the anti-religious bias, which he maintains is rampant in the Israeli mainstream music business. Mainly that’s because there’s also no love lost between him and the haredi religious establishment, who naturally bristle at the notion of one of their own playing the “devil’s music” to secular audiences.
“I can understand how those Tel Aviv people feel because I’m the biggest critic of the haredi population in Israel,” says Lloyd, who lives with his wife and five children in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph. “They really blew it big time, so this is what you get as a result. You have a guitar player with a long beard, and some of the secular public is afraid of it.”
Amid those well-worn cultural clashes in Israeli society that threaten to suck the life out of anyone who attempts to confront them, Lloyd has slapped his worn cowboy hat over his bushy head and focused on the best way he knows to communicate – music. And from kibbutzim in the North to bars in the center to festivals in the South, he and his band (drummer Elimelech Grundman, bassist Moshe Davidson and keyboardist Tsachi Sadaan) have spread the love through torrid psychedelic-tinged grooves, spine-tingling guitar solos and stop-on-a-dime Stax and Motown-worthy arrangements.
Now US roots music fans seem to be picking up the Lazer Lloyd gauntlet. His new self-titled album, released on Chicago’s Lots of Love Records label and featuring 11 original songs that range from scorching rockers to heart-tugging ballads, along with a supple cover of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay,” is beating out the likes of Buddy Guy on the blues charts on indie American radio stations. Magazines like Relix and Downbeat have featured stories on him, and he’s been traveling back and forth between Israel and the US, where he’s been performing in blues festivals and showcasing in clubs around the country.
“Because of limited budgets, I had never been able to finish any album the way I liked to – good enough to put on the charts in America,” says Lloyd. “But the Lots of Love people believed in it, and now it’s being entered as a candidate for a Grammy nomination.”
Ironically, those exact attributes that have constrained Lloyd’s ability to go mainstream in Israel – the beard, the tzitzit, the spirituality – have made him a media darling in the ethnically diverse melting pot of America, where a Hendrix-playing Israeli hassid grabs headlines.
“A lot of other Israeli artists try to hide that they’re Israelis when they go abroad.
Me, I can’t hide it, even if I wanted to,” laughs Lloyd. “But it works to my advantage.
When festivals book me, they realize that I’ve got this special hook, so they offer me to the local TV and radio broadcasts.
And it creates a buzz.”
Of course, that buzz can go two ways: ‘Hey, let’s go see this wild, Jewish hippie play the blues’ or ‘Let’s go demonstrate against this Israeli scum.’ That dichotomy, according to Lloyd, has resulted in some interesting alliances.
“The reception has been great everywhere, but we all know what happened with Matisyahu in Spain [where he was greeted by a sea of Palestinian flags during his performance last month]. So promoters are naturally concerned,” he says. “I was the first white artist booked into the Russell Hayward Blues Festival in California, and to make sure that there were no problems, the promoter assigned two Hell’s Angels to be my bodyguards.”
Not only weren’t there any problems, but Lloyd dazzled the crowd, which included luminaries like legendary bluesman Charley Musselwhite and the widow of blues great Luther Allison.
“They fell in love with me and stocked my manager with names and numbers of other festivals, promoters and musicians. That’s what it’s all about in that festival circuit – if they like you, then you get all the connections,” says Lloyd.
The accolades are gratifying for Lloyd, but he insists that the reason he spends more than 100 nights a year performing outside of Israel has just as much to do with his personal journey as a goodwill ambassador for Israel.
“The reality is that I’m out there, and I see what’s going on. I’m not exactly sure what the reason is, but we’re doing a bad job of fighting this whole BDS thing,” says Lloyd.
“There’s something not in tune about getting the message out. But I see when they put me on TV or when I play in front of thousands of people who like what Israel is just from seeing me. When you make great music, you’re a happy guy and you’re nice, it breaks down so many barriers. If it was just money, I’d be very happy to stay here in Israel. I’m making a living, and it’s a miracle. But I feel that I have a mission beyond that,” he says.
A few hours later, under the moonlit stars that showered the Judean Hills at the Public pub, Lloyd and his musical comrades were in their natural habitat, momentarily putting aside thoughts of boycotts and world images and sending the music soaring into the open, inviting sky.
Lazer Lloyd will be showcasing his new album at the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem on September 24.