A Jewish Pop Band Worth the Wait

Music

By Alexander Gelfand

Published May 08, 2008, issue of May 16, 2008.
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On most evenings, the lower Manhattan venue Drom, where I recently caught a live set by the Los Angeles-based Moshav Band, probably seems very much like any other subterranean hipster hangout.

The long, rectangular antechamber is decorated in dimly lit leather furniture and exposed brick. The bathrooms — well, the men’s room, at least — features one of those fancy, high-speed Mitsubishi hand dryers. There is a long wooden bar in the high-ceilinged main space, where you can order a Ginger Bubinga or a Good Night Kiss, and chef Diego Gonzales, who also runs the kitchen at Zipi Zape, a tapas bar in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, offers a four-course tasting menu, heavy on such Mediterranean fare as lomo de bacalao and pisto de la madrid.

But the night I was there, Drom was not quite like any other downtown spot. The attractive young things in the front room wore tzitzit and modest dress; the members of the crowd in the main space looked like they’d shown up for a mixer sponsored by a rabbinical school and a Modern Orthodox singles club, and the guy I passed on my way to the bathroom was davening so hard, I thought his yarmulke was going to fall off. This is what happens when you book a popular Jewish pop band.

There was some fairly pleasant world beat playing over the sound system. I liked it well enough — but not so much that I would have willingly chosen to listen to it for 57 minutes, which is precisely how long it took for the show to get started. (I don’t count the half-dozen guys who walked past me, humming nigunim under their breath.) Still, I have to admit that when Moshav finally did take to the stage, with David Swirsky on acoustic guitar and Yehuda Solomon on dumbek (Middle Eastern drum) — Yehuda’s bass-playing brother, Yosef, was AWOL that evening — it was worth the wait.

Swirsky and the Solomons grew up together in Israel on Moshav Mevo Modi’im, which was also once home to Shlomo Carlebach, the charismatic, guitar-toting rabbi who helped launch the modern Jewish folk song movement. Carlebach was an early musical inspiration, as was the Solomons’ father, Ben Zion, a violinist and founding member of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band. His pioneering “country and eastern” blend of bluegrass, rock and Hasidic music helped redefine Jewish pop in the 1970s. The Moshav Band immigrated to Los Angeles en masse in the late ’90s and has been touring and churning out albums ever since.

Moshav’s last release, “Misplaced,” was mixed by Brendan O’Brien, who has also worked with Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots. It was produced by Ron Aniello, who has handled projects by Barenaked Ladies and the Christian rockers Lifehouse. With its sophisticated production — the disc was loaded with snazzy electronic effects — and top-notch studio players, “Misplaced” gave Moshav a significant career boost.

I was happy, however, to hear the musicians give a relatively intimate acoustic performance. This would probably be the place to roll out the appropriate cliché about how the members spending their formative years living on a collective made the band preternaturally tight. I’ll spare you that. But it’s true that Yehuda Solomon and Swirsky work beautifully together. The two produce the kind of close vocal harmonies that nowadays are often the result of careful postproduction tweaking, and both offer crisp, rhythmic playing on their respective instruments.

Mostly, though, they play the audience: Their tunes are pretty much engineered to be earworms, with neatly rhymed lyrics in Hebrew and English, carefully modulated dynamics and extremely catchy hooks. The crowd immediately began singing along with the first song, “Tefila,” and before long, everyone — from underage female fans to unkempt yeshiva bokhers — was clapping, bouncing and shimmying in place. By the time Moshav had segued from “The Eulogy Song” (a Carlebach tribute) to Paul Simon’s “I Know What I Know,” off the “Graceland” album, I was no longer frustrated by the long wait; I was disappointed that I’d have to cut out early as a result. Just before I left, the band launched into the up-tempo, hoedownlike “Come Back,” which featured some head-thrashing solo work from violinist Nimrod Nol, and small groups of dancers in the audience spontaneously began to form. (Nol, who came to Moshav by way of singer Kelly Clarkson’s band, was a treat; he even gamely offered up the occasional pizzicato bass-line.)

Moshav’s dance card appears to be extremely full — the Drom gig was part of a mini-East Coast tour that included shows in Philadelphia and New Jersey, and preceded a series of concerts in Israel — and the band deserves it: The players write well, they work hard and they sound good. Next time they’re in town, I may even show up an hour late so that I can catch the whole show.

Alexander Gelfand is a music critic for the Forward.


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