Jacob’s Ladder is having a musical identity crisis. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Now in its 37th year, Jacob’s Ladder is best known as Israel’s preeminent folk, country, bluegrass and Irish music festival. Held twice a year at Kibbutz Ginosar north of Tiberius, the spring version just concluded this past weekend. And while there was ample evidence of the festival’s signature fiddle and banjo sounds, the true discoveries this year were the alt and indie singer-songwriters who have increasingly crept in over the past few shows.
Which is good news for fans like me who would never, at any other time, proactively part with their hard earned currency to hear a bluegrass band, but who just love the laid back vibe of the festival, that’s been going strong since 1978 when immigrants Menachem and Yehudit Vinegrad realized they missed the folk festivals they left behind ten years earlier upon moving from their native England to Israel. Initially billed as an “Anglo” festival, there is now more Hebrew than English spoken as the children – and grandchildren – of the original 700 Jacob’s Ladder attendees have grown up at the place.
This year, attendance topped well over 3,000 (the parking lot filled up especially early) as the festival has evolved from a single stage in an olive grove on the ground of Kibbutz Mahanayim, where revelers once had to dig their own toilets, to a 3-day extravaganza with multiple simultaneous performances, high-end eco-friendly porta-potties (and showers), and a full food court with roasted chickens for only NIS 45 (the ice coffee wasn’t bad either).
Jacob’s Ladder is also one of the only smoking-free festivals in Israel – the fact that people actually follow the rules is a testament to the positive atmosphere that prevails. Among other people-friendly policies: no high plastic chairs are allowed in the middle of the main performance area. When someone near us dared to try, blocking the views of everyone behind them, my wife asked them to move…and they did.
My friends think I’m a bit of a fanatic when it comes to preparing for Jacob’s Ladder: I go through the schedule far in advance and listen to YouTube and MySpace clips of all the performers, in order to decide which of the dozens of acts to catch. I was psyched to hear Red Sun Project, the harder-edged version of my break out band from last year, then known just as “Jenny & Gilad.” They did not disappoint, and have just released their first CD (which I bought…one’s got to support the struggling artist, right?). Erez Singer and Tal Cohen Shalev, who I singled out last year as among the festival’s top indie performers, returned with strong sets, too.
But my star billing for 2013 goes to two women who both used an electronic device called a “loop station” to create a virtual orchestra out of a solo (or near solo) performance. A loop station basically records what you sing and starts repeating it. The performer “plays” it like an instrument, turning it on and off and adding layers of sound – a guitar riff, a bit of percussion, a repeated chant – and then sings along to it. At Jacob’s Ladder, Carlie Fairburn (an Australian who performs with her Israeli husband Yosi Chopen) and Tamar Capsouto both mastered the device. Even without it, their gorgeous voices and powerful lyrics would have captured my attention. In Carlie’s case, Yosi also adds a delicious didgeridoo to the mix.
Jacob’s Ladder’s indie pop direction can also be seen in the decision to bring back the Abrams Brothers for the fourth time. When the Canadian country/bluegrass band first appeared in 2007, the emphasis was heavy on the kind of music that wouldn’t be out of place at the Grand Ole Opry. In the last two years, though, the Abrams Brothers (actually two brothers, one just out of his teens, and a cousin) have transformed themselves into a three-piece “boy band” that sounds more like the Eagles than Willie Nelson, with hooks that would play well on any good indie pop radio station. And their cover of Coldplay’s “Vida la Vida” (with its chorus about “Jerusalem Bells”) continues to kill.
There was one more addition this year that made Jacob’s Ladder even more special, for me at least: rock and roll “liturgical” music from Nava Tehila, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Jerusalem that uses acoustic instruments (guitar, cello, harp, darbuka) in prayer and writes all its own music. They were invited to lead Kabbalat Shabbat. Full disclosure: my family is a member of Nava Tehila, so I was already familiar with the tunes, but on stage at Jacob’s Ladder, the Nava Tehila band really got its electrified groove on. It didn’t hurt that one of the tunes they’d previously composed for Lecha Dodi (and that is in regular “rotation” on Friday nights in Jerusalem) is a hee-haw swing-your-partner country number; it could have fit in perfectly in an Abrams Brothers set. It’s not every day you see hundreds of people do-si-do’ing to welcome the Sabbath Bride.
Menachem and Yehudit Vinegrad would undoubtedly say that there’s no identity crisis at Jacob’s Ladder – that the eclectic musical diversity was part of the patent from day one. And I’ve left out mention of some of the quirkier world music bands like Friday night’s La Vache Qui Rit. I won’t quibble on semantics; Jacob’s Ladder remains my favorite weekend of the year. Its musical evolution – if you know where to look – towards the kind of music I listen to at home simply makes it that much more enjoyable. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a Red Sun Project CD to play.