“Blues is a natural fact, is something that a fellow lives. If you don’t live it you don’t have it.” – Big Bill Broonzy
Another subterranean Friday night in Prague. One floor down from the clang and clatter of a bright Zizkov cafe, a lone bluesman does his soundcheck. There’s a mixing board and open suitcase at his feet. Two Fender acoustics are at his side. He wears a navy pin-stripe suit and brown boots. He’s tall and lanky, with shaggy hair nearly covering his eyes. One hard strum and he adjusts the peg. The note makes a waaaaah sound and slides deeper. In front of him is a snare drum on its side painted with the single word, ‘Lavash.’
Cutting his chops in the south London jazz and cabaret scene of the 90’s, Justin Lavash came to Prague thirteen years ago and has since establish himself as one of the great singer/songwriters and guitarists of Prague (and much of Europe). Far from resting on his laurels with his blues, folk, and jazz inspired modern classics, Lavash is constantly pushing his own musical talent. He likes to think of this evolution as something similar to looking at an old photograph and seeing something new each time. “I try to keep myself from falling into complacency,” he tells me after the soundcheck. “It’s a sort of jazz mentality with pushing certain aspects and constantly morphing. My songs sound different after two or three years.”
Around 9pm the crowd begins to pack into the dimly lit cavern. A couple near the stage shares a plate of french fries and sip red wine. A guy checks his instagram, the light from his phone illuminating his face in creepy shadows. An older woman with soft blonde hair sits alone against the back wall, no drink in her hand. There’s quiet anticipation. Lavash sits down on a folding chair and leans into the microphone, “thanks for coming” he says, then BOOM! His long fingers slide up and down the neck of his guitar like watching multiple strikes of lightning and he’s singing of going down to the crossroads long ago (an important legend in the blues catalogue.) People’s feet start tapping, heads start bobbing along. Lavash’s eyes are closed because he and everyone in the room are now standing at the crossroads, the devil ready to make a deal.
It’s rare to walk away from a show completely shaken. Lavash pounds through a set like a man possessed. Songs like “Slide” and “Long Way Up” with their driving guitar and electric backbeat touch somewhere between the Mississippi Delta and the right here and now. The room shakes when Lavash launches into “Brick by Brick.” His guitar playing hits the audience like a freight train. At one point he opens his eyes and looks to the ceiling. You look up too. What does he see up there? Maybe it’s the spirit flying over. One short break, a few swigs of Coca-cola, and Lavash is again taking us to that place where music punches you right in the gut.
The ability to express yourself in a way that unites your words and music with others in a shared experience is a gift granted to few, but Lavash seems to possess in spades. He finishes the last set with “Avalanche,” a dreamily melodic song that gives the room the final push over the edge. We’re all dead, equal parts exhilarated and exhausted. Lavash is exhausted too. He begins to gather up his equipment as the audience recedes like a slow wave towards the bar. “Playing two or three chords at the same time on guitar while singing requires focus and is physically demanding.” he admits. “It’s an issue of time and giving intensity for a few hours. Last year I played 136 gigs, 147 the year before.” With that much gigging, Lavash knows the importance of taking his audience by the hand and leading them by familiarity to something close to religious. And yet, as Lavash says, “there’s no exclusivity to it, no air of class or prestige. (My music) has an everyman feel to it, which I think is best to give.”
See justinlavash.com for more music, videos, and live performance dates.