One of the less expected, and thus one of the more thrilling fusions of American and Jewish music comes to the Washington Jewish Music Festival Sunday night courtesy of Jeremiah Lockwood and The Sway Machinery. Imagine David Bowie channeling Robert Johnson as your cantor. Better than that. Imagine your cantor kicking it old-school, which means the old Ashkenazi Hebrew (with the “t” sounds pronounced like “s” and the “a” pronounced “oy”) backed by a funked-up horns section, blues guitar and a bass line that recalls the religious origins of the word “awesome” (Expressive of awe or terror). Imagine rock ‘n’ roll percussion crashing on-top of it all creating a tension that always seems ready to break into chaos but never does, like rocking backwards on a chair that never quite falls.
I could wax poetic for another twelve paragraphs and never capture in words the unique sound of The Sway Machinery: traditional Hebrew liturgy chanted over urgent music that (dare I say it) combines the transcendant potentials of both rock and prayer. Cynics who believe in neither might not be impressed by that, but if either one has appealed to you at any time in your life, then The Sway Machinery connects powerfully. I’ve had moments with both, more with the former than the latter. Normally I find liturgical music either sterile or self-sanctified. I pretty much always assume that if someone’s singing about God they’re trying to convert me to something. But there’s an intimacy and power to Lockwood’s vocals that lend them authenticity, and he seems less interested in impressing the listener than in expelling the burden of these prayers from his body. He’s not trying to convert you. In fact, fuck you. This is just something that has to come out and come out now. It’s powerful stuff.
The following track Anim Zemiros is from their “Hidden Melodies Revealed” (JDub) release. The lyrics are a liturgical poem believed to have been written by a 12th Century rabbi and kabbalist. The prayer is commonly recited in congregations at the end of the service, usually by a child. There isn’t really a good translation that I could find on the web, but there are a few imperfect ones. Perhaps its better not to stress the literal meanings (the title literally means “I shall sing sweet songs”) so much as gather the tone. More important, don’t miss The Sway Machinery on Sunday night.