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 fewimperfect 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.
The 10th Anniversary Washington Jewish Music Festival got off to a rousing start last night with the Andy Statman Trio’s two-hour long set of bluegrass and klezmer-inspired fusions. Statman is an interesting stage presence, both understated and at times bashful — he admitted that many of the songs being played didn’t even have names and he would apologetically invent irreverent names on the spot like: Shloime’s Post-Bar Mitzvah Song and Song for Sally Fields. Although that last song came close to being named in honor of either Mary Martin or Julie Andrews. It’s not a story that one can really relate. You had to be there.
Which is why you don’t want to miss the shows coming up over the weekend. It’s a weekend in which we push the bounds of what Jewish music sounds like and what sounds can be made Jewish. We’ll talk about the Kinsey Sicks here and The Sway Machinery in a latter post.
So, on Saturday night is the outrageous Kinsey Sicks, America’s foremost Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet who happen to have a considerable Jewish repertoire. Jews, already outsiders in some respects, are not an unusual sight amongst other marginalized groups — think Harvey Milk, Allen Ginsberg, Emma Goldman. Then think cross-dressing a capella singers. Not suprisingly, they are very funny. Wickedly funny. With song titles from their holiday album Oy Vey in a Manger like God Bless Ye Femmy Lesbians and I Had a Little Facial that doesn’t come as a terrible shock. But what did suprise me in listening to their work, was the simultaneously heart-wrenching and camped-up version of the Yiddish classic Papirossen (Cigarettes) from the same album. The song is the melodramatic story of a young boy trying to sell cigarettes while bemoaning his poverty, his handless father, suicidal mother and dead sister. It is a downer, that when sung well can amazingly contain real pathos. The Sicks manage to pull this off while still acknowledging the almost lampoonish suffering in the story. Take a listen:
Let’s face it. Most kids’ music sucks. Sure you got your Dan Zanes (former Del Fuegos frontman) and They Might Be Giants (former They Might Be Giants) making kids’ music that doesn’t make you want to stab your eardrums out with a mechanical pencil. Laurie Berkner’s not my cup of tea, but she has her proponents. And then you have… well, its a pretty short list. Narrow your search results further by affixing “Jewish” to “kids’ music that doesn’t suck the life force from parents” and the list gets even shorter. Which is why ShirLaLa is so awesome and why we’re offering a special Family Shabbat Service & Dinner with her on Friday, June 5 during the 10th Anniversary Washington Jewish Music Festival.
Its not just the wildly dyed hair and the freak-folk energy she brings with her. Shira Kline is not playing at being cool. She is cool. My kids even like her and I don’t let my kids like kids’ music (they’re not quite five and my daughter can identify a Shins song within 3 bars and my son’s current favorite song is this). And Shira’s music authentically engages children in a warm, positive celebration of Jewish holidays, rituals and Shabbat. She reinterprets classic liturgy like “L’Cha Dodi,” amps up kids’ classics like “Put the Chicken in the Pot” and puts her own spin on niggunim like “Bim Bam” which she takes through several different musical styles including surfer rock, lounge cool, latin jazz and hard rock. Perhaps its just easier to take a listen:
Plus we’re throwing dinner into the bargain! Happy kids, shabbat, and music that doesn’t make you reconsider your decision to become a parent. It’s a win-win-win.
What more perfect way could we choose to kick-off the 10th Annual Washington Jewish Music Festival than with Andy Statman, a giant in the alt-neu Klezmer movement. His return to perform at the Festival is more than an opening night, it also serves as a keynote to the other performers that make up this year’s lineup. For Statman is an artist who has never stopped evolving, never stopped exploring new forms of music and meshing them together into deeply personal compositions and performances. He is the rare musician as devoted to his Judaism as he is to the craft of musicianship and brooks no compromise in his simultaneous devotion to each. Even rarer is his authentic aesthetic commitment to tradition and experimentation. His work provides by turns the comforts of the old world followed by sonic explosions and staccato riffs that break down traditional forms and morph into something like jazz before returning full circle to pulse thumping, foot stomping jams. For all of the subsequent acts in the Festival that combine forms into a new Jewish medium — a capella, funk, hip hop and classical — Statman provides inspiration at both ends of the spectrum between experimentation and accesibility.
The title track from his recent album East Flatbush Blues is a great example of both Statman’s virtuosity and broad musical vocabulary.
East Flatbush Blues (Andy Statman, Oceana Music, ASCAP)