Shir Madness revisited

March 29, 2012 by Brad Syke
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J-Wire showbiz reviewer Brad Syke has posted his take on last Sunday’s Shir Madness Jewish music festival…

Deborah Conway Pic: Henry Benjamin

For the culture vulture, festivals are  a blessing. And a curse. Shir Madness, the second annual Sydney Jewish Music Festival is no exception. See one thing, you miss others. Even if, as I did, you hang ’round for the duration (11 hours). The ever-tatty Bondi Pavilion works exceptionally well for the purpose. Patrons enter from the front. From there, they may proceed upstairs where, to the south, the main theatre has been named  Summertime; I know not why. To the north, in a large room where you might’ve done an African drumming workshop, the Hallelujah stage is reserved for more ‘klezmeric’ pursuits. Downstairs, there’s Beautiful Noise, to the north; food and other stalls, to the south, along with Tapestry space and chai tent (where up-and-comers strut their stuff). There’s also the Forever Yong kids’ space and Silent Disco. Man, I completely missed that! See what I mean?

I did, ever so briefly, hear the effortless strains (contradiction in terms intended) of The Australian Jewish Choral Festival Choir, which opened proceedings under the Beautiful Noise banner. Could there’ve been a more beautiful ‘noise’? The choir has only recently been formed, blossoming into the inaugural Australian Jewish Choral Festival, inspired by a tour by the New York-based The Western Wind, whose members have been tirelessly teaching and mentoring while in Australia and which performed, later in the day, on the Summertime stage. If you didn’t know this sextet has been enthusiastically acclaimed wherever they’ve been, you’d predict it in the very first moments of hearing their sublimely spiritualised performances. The ensemble has been devoted to the a cappella form for well over 40 years. For the festival, they opted for liturgical and folkloric flavours, even if they’re eclecticism, on the whole knows no bounds: they’re as at home with rock ‘n’ roll as Renaissance motets. The AJCFC is a wonderful legacy for The WW to have left.

Tim Freedman pic: Eyad Bahadi

My companions soon joined me in the Tapestry room (with lifebuoys suspended from the ceiling in a witty replication of the acoustic rings at the opera house) to see and hear Second Dan. It was, technically, possible to top-and tail this performance with around ten minutes either end of the choir, but a case of chorales interrupts, really and, in practice, too unsettling, if worth the trouble.

Second Dan (an interesting double entendre referring, of course, to the lost tribe, but also a martial arts grade) has, I understand, spent the last six years in NYC; ‘though I’m sure I’ve seen bassist Jonathan Zwartz perform in other contexts over that period. The same band is, apparently, known as The Hunting Party, which is by no means an uncommon practice, but no less confusing for it.

The fact Second Dan won Triple J’s Unearthed in 2004 may well ring more bells. The band’s single, Running Out Of Feelings, was among the top one-hundred most-played songs that year. It’s a case of homegrown being much more famous on foreign turf (you can barely buy a decent mango to save your life in Darwin): when Second Dan released its second album, Angeline, a couple of years ago, its reputation as one of New York’s best indie bands went from strength to strength, with commensurate critical acclaim, including very honorable mentions in ‘best of’ lists on both sides of the Atlantic. Many of the songs have insinuated themselves into numerous television shows.

Second Dan: Jonathan Zwartz, Dan Rosen and Simon Rudston-Brown pic: Eyad Bahadi

The lifeblood of this normally four-piece band (pared back to three for this tour) is lead singer Dan Rosen; a tall, chiseled, good-looking guy from Melbourne, influenced by The Replacements and Elvis Costello. Neither can necessarily be readily discerned in the band’s music, if at all. What is evident, however, is something of the latter’s gift for killer hooks, making for catchy, memorable, ‘commercial’-sounding pop-rock songs, but at the quality end of the spectrum. Rosen has an attractive, raw voice that’s just the right medium for communicating heartfelt songs that worked well, even at 11am on a sunny Sydney Sunday, in a small, sparsely-populated room of laid-back novices. But there’s a sound here that suggests a wall-of-sound spaciousness that would be right at home in major stadia. Commentators have mentioned Radiohead, Oasis, Foo Fighters, early U2, The Beatles, The Kinks, and others. My ears easily detect the last two, along with deliberate or inadvertent nods to The Stones & Floyd; no bad thing. Better yet, the songs aren’t of the disposable variety that pollute the airwaves for no time at all, only to disappear as if never there. These are recyclable; built to last.

As well as being lucky in recruiting erstwhile, top-flight jazz bassman Zwartz, Rosen has landed on his feet with Simon Rudston-Brown on lead guitar. His is a distinctive style, which puts me somewhat in mind of Ian Moss; again, no bad thing. He also sticks in my mind insofar as bearing a passing resemblance to Frank Zappa, just as Rosen could feign entry to The Eagles, perhaps, as Glen Frey.

My only beef with Rosen and crew is I found them so compelling, I entirely missed Klezmer Divas. Oi weh! This is the very festival frustration of which I complain. Happily the death threat to Yiddish, through sheer attrition, is dramatically diminished, so long as diehards like the Divas keep on keeping on. As one of their songs says, ‘oi-yoi mama, I am in love!’

Simon Tedeschi might be able to use some queer eye counsel, given the faux crocskin jacket, or whatever the hell it was, he was wearing, but none has anything to teach him about music. You can reach out and touch his passion (so to speak), which is amply evident in every note he plays and in the way he enthuses about each piece. Among other things, he related a precious anecdote about the eccentric Percy Grainger, before (literally) pounding out one of his works, unapologetically influenced by ragtime. Then, to Tedeschi’s idiosyncratic arrangement of Gershwin’s seminal jazz-classical crossover opus, Rhapsody In Blue. Mindblowing. But it was all Simon’s fault I missed Israeli poet, Benezra, Kim Cunio & Heather Lee. Also known as Oscar and Marigold, theirs are voices that transcend time and sound as if sent from a higher realm.

But I did catch The Magic Strings Ensemble, playing the kind of gypsy music I grew up hearing, from scratchy, old records placed on the turntable by my Hungarian father. It’s impossible not tone moved and enlivened by this fiery Eastern European music, which can almost literally be felt in the blood. Composer, arranger, conductor and cellist Anatoli Torjinski leads an orchestra of virtuosic soloists on double-bass, cimbalom and violins.

Unsurprisingly, Tim Freedman, The Whitlams’ inimitable frontman and founder, was one of the festival’s headline acts. It was a welcome opportunity to reacquaint with the fact he’s had a profound influence on the Australian musical landscape. His respectful tribute to Margaret was  touching, as was his homage to Harris, in the form of his rearrangement of Rolf’s tear-jerking Two Little Boys. Freedman has a great capacity to connect with his audience, while never resiling from expressing his views. He seemed to reign in his acerbity somewhat, perhaps in deference to the early afternoon general audience. Here we saw a lower-key, humbler, (dare I say?) mellowed TF. Maybe it’s that he, more keenly than anyone, I expect, realises there’s no aphrodisiac like loneliness. But he still blew up the pokies for us one more time; always a welcome gesture towards culture. He even did the one song from his extensive catalogue that sounds ‘just a little bit Jewish’. (Note for Simon: Tim has better taste in jackets. Find out who his tailor is.)

Thanks to Facebook friendship and awareness of his playing on Lulo Reinhardt’s frequent Australian tours, I’d been looking eagerly forward to Daniel Weltlinger’s Zohar’s Nigun and wasn’t let down by the convergence of jazz with Jewish and other ethnic identities. Harking back to the spirit of Django, but melding influences (according to my ears) from Cuban to Californian, Weltlinger’s ongoing struggle with question of identity (he should be called Israel) pays rich dividends fro listeners, especially with the likes of Daniel Plner (piano), Simon Milman (bass) and Aron Ilsar (drums) on-board. The name means a song from the depths of one’s soul and Weltlinger’s presentation epitomises this intent. As he says on the project’s website, ‘Jazz is a music that can blend with any culture; a truly democratic, multilingual artform’; an outlook and philosophy the band lives and breathes.

Rural Victoria is about the last place you expect to find shtetl, but that’s the locale for which Ricketty Bridge hail. Their influences are pretty clearly cross-cultural, given that one of them wears a kilt and pith-helmet. They, too, sing in Yiddish (and five other languages, not least Ladino), which augurs well for the survival of this incomparably colourful, expressive tongue. They sounded a little rickety to begin but, give ’em a break, they’d just driven from central Mexico! An acoustic, world music outfit of hippies (it strikes me hippies have now been round so long many will be needing hip replacements) and eccentrics, they play all manner of weird and wonderful instruments, including mandolin, accordion, a big-arsed recorder (or was it merely a piccolo with pretensions of grandeur?), violin, double-bass and dumbed. Even, exotically, a guitar. Matt, who pays it so sensitively, sang beautifully in Ladino, while Henriette fondly related songs she heard her father sing, in Yiddish.

I caught precious little of Deborah Conway, Willy Zygier, et al, but even a little is precious. This lusty, resilient, resourceful woman can no longer really be separated from her musical and life partner. Conway’s triumph is to have taken massive commercial success in her stride, without having the subsequent, relative lack of it crush her spirit. She has grown artistically and now, very arguably, is in her prime. But then it seems she always has been and, I suspect, always will be. She and Zygier seem to have enveloped an intimate, down-home, folk-blues sound that’s deeply relatable. The songs tend to wrap around you, like a favourite throw, or big, old jumper does, as you curl-up on the couch with your favourite melancholic thoughts. The rustic quality of resonator guitar helps no end with these evocations and her second consecutive appearance at Shir Madness couldn’t have been more appropriate or timely, since she and Willy were sneak-previewing songs for a new album that, like their last, warmly-embraced one, will explore Jewish themes. She’s an outright legend in my mind, if not her own.

Dahlia Dior does Piaf Pic: Eyad Bahadi

I’ve waited way too long as it turns out, to see Dahlia Dior; ‘though I have seen her jazz-diva daughter, Lily, who may be small of stature but is by no means diminutive in terms of talent. Like daughter, like mother. As I discover, Dahlia’s versatility across, jazz, cabaret, chanson, torch songs and much more, knows virtually no bounds. Debuting for Shir Madness, her new show Piaf (A Passionate Life) sees her get right to the heart of The Kid (more accurately, even if typically otherwise translated) Sparrow’s motivations. Famous and not-so-famous songs are worn together with biographical excerpts: it’s as if that little bird has confided a few secrets. Dior’s fragrant recreation of the mood and disposition of France’s ‘national popular singer’ is spellbinding and even in the ragged confines of Bondi’s beachside pavilion, one is transported back to her heroic beginnings. Dahlia, to be blunt, is now no spring chicken, but shows no signs of flagging or fading. She is a consummate performer; an astonishing singer, with a commanding theatrical presence. This show alone is one which should be seen in Paris and all over the world. Wherever La Mome Piaf is known and loved. It brings her back to life. ‘Padam, padam, padam!’ go the heartstrings. Even the brutishly invasive non-stop-talker behind me couldn’t spoil it, try as she might.

I’ve already mentioned The Western Wind. Suffice to say they’re exemplary singers, of an ilk any polished and professional singer would envy. Their repertoire may be famously eclectic, but for the occasion they chose a programme as uplifting as anything you’ll hear in synagogue. Whether you’re secular or don a tallis day-in-day-out, I practically guarantee you’ll be pacified and purified just by lending them an ear. Rapturous.

I was too late back from a dinner break to catch more than a few moments of soul-funk-jazz maestro Dereb ‘The Ambassador’ Desalegn; more’s the pity. Not even a decade ago, he was Mr Addis Ababa. Now, he’s ours and here to stay, having formed an eight-piece comprised of the creme de la creme of Sydney musos. Stay tuned for the band’s slated collaborations with the likes of Cut Chemist. On that basis alone, I’m looking for a key to lock the band in a studio with Joseph Tawadros.

Lanrae has travelled extensively throughout South Asia and lived for a time in Alice, but has found herself in Melbourne, where her debut album and nationwide airplay have come to pass. It’s resulted in much waxing lyrical by commentators and Triple J like her a lot. So do I. Her voice is warm, connective and listenable in a way that even constant exposure isn’t likely to make tiresome, which is much more than you can say for a good many contemporary singers. Her songs, too, are intriguing, with a goodvibe groove that’s very encouraging of movement.

Mosh Ben Ari topped the bill and was saved till last. In Israel, he’s probably more popular than Benjamin Netanyahu. He brought his knockout three-piece with him and had the younger crowd up and dancing, in that particular, upbeat, celebratory way that seems to be quintessentially Israeli in character. His sound is pop-rock-soul reggae, with a hint of yidhop. Filtering through, too, I reckon, are his birthright Yemenite and Iraqi influences, as well as evidence of his travels through India, the Sinai and Sahara. Even his guitar-playing seems to echo the desert. He’s had twenty number one hits (oi!) and I’m sure there’s more up his sleeve.

My day (and night) was capped, beautifully, by Masha’s Legacy. What better way to pay tribute to your Auschwitz-surviving grandmother than start a band in her honour? That’s precisely what Sarit and Stuart Vandegraaff did. The inspiration might be Jewish, but this is world music, if ever the term meant something, with members hailing from as far afield as Israel, Egypt, Qatar, Greece, Chile and Indonesia. Sax, req, tabla, electric bass and keys join hands with flamenco and bellydancing to produce a sour and spectacle that is unto itself.

I know. I sounds like a big day. It was. But for all I saw, there was so much I missed. Apologies to Raz Bin Sam and The Lion I Band, Miriam Lieberman, My Sauce Good, Gimel, Susanna Carman, Mindi Sotiri, Aliza Waxman, Old Man River, Monsieur Camembert and so many others. Maybe next year. I hope so.

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