The rocker from Israel

I had made up my mind to begin the column this time with soul band Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings’ brilliant new album that has been on my playlist for much of last week. The songs are great and there’s a not-so-happy back story to it too, but all that will have to wait because towards the end of the week, I was gobsmacked by something else I heard. And it wasn’t even something that was brand new. Just something I’d never even heard of before. It was an album by an Israeli musician named Asaf Avidan and his band, The Mojos, and it was called, simply, The Reckoning. Frankly, I wasn’t prepared for the impact that this album would have.
The Reckoning has 15 tracks, all composed by Avidan, and hopping genres ranging from blues and folk to rock and grunge. It is massively impressive. Avidan is quite clearly Israel’s best kept secret, although he appears to be immensely popular there. But more on that later. For those of us who love getting drenched in rock music of the kind that we got from Led Zeppelin or the Stones or Janis Joplin, Asaf Avidan’s music will come as a blessing. But there’s something else. I didn’t pick those three legendary names randomly. When I heard The Reckoning’s first track, Maybe You Are, an instantly infectious folk tune, I genuinely thought the singer in the band was a woman. That’s the kind of voice Avidan has: a powerful woman’s voice. Think Janis Joplin. Think Nina Simone.

Asaf Avidan often sounds like a young Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin’s frontman

Asaf Avidan often sounds like a young Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin’s frontman

By the time I was listening to the second track, Hangwoman, an unapologetic rock tune, with robust guitar riffs and vocal highs, Avidan’s high notes were sounding like a young Robert Plant’s, I kid you not. And by the time I reached Empty Handed Saturday Blues, a little after the middle of the album, it was clear to me that this guy was a genius. For the past eight or 10 years, to Israeli rock fans, he indeed has been considered one. If you go to YouTube to check out some of his videos, don’t be surprised to see that most of them have been viewed more than a million times; I found one that had notched up 11 million.

It’s curious that despite his popularity in Israel and the fact that Avidan, a skinny guy with mohawk style hair, sings in English, he hasn’t made huge ripples outside his country. The Reckoning, to be sure, was internationally released a couple of years back and did get critical acclaim but Avidan and his music – I also learnt that he’s recently gone acoustic and solo sans The Mojos – deserve to scorch up the live circuit in the US and Europe. That probably will happen this year. Although he’s played a number of gigs in Europe in the past, his full-blown North American tour begins this month. After that, you’re bound to hear a lot of him. Unless, you decide to get his albums before that. Good move that might be.

As I was saying, this column was going to begin with Sharon Jones’s new album, Give The People What They Want, but then I got hijacked. But here goes. Jones is one of today’s finest soul musicians who sings in the tradition of the old soul and funk singers of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Her style is vibrant and upbeat and her songs steeped with sharp comments on social issues.

When Give The People What They Want was released, Sharon Jones, 58, was diagnosed with cancer

When Give The People What They Want was released, Sharon Jones, 58, was diagnosed with cancer Photo: GETTY IMAGES

I’d written in DC about Jones back in 2010. She is a late bloomer, finding her due recognition only in her forties although she was a gifted singer even as a child. En route to success, she had to overcome many obstacles, including the reluctance of record companies who acknowledged her talent but rejected her because she didn’t look like a soul singer. Yes, strange are the ways of big business. But then, under the aegis of a relatively new label, Daptone Records, Jones found a national audience, but not before doing a stint as a prison guard at Rikers Island, where, she says in an interview, the inmates often wanted her to sing for them.

The first time when I heard her on 2007’s 100 Days, 100 Nights, Jones became an instant hit for me and the beginning of my collection of most of what she’s recorded. Hers is a full-bodied version of soul – whether she’s talking about love, betrayal and sadness or just beseeching you not to pay your taxes (What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes? on Soul Time!, a compilation album). A couple of weeks back, when Give The People What They Want was released, it was preceded by reports that Jones, 58, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was in remission when the album came out and because of the fact that the diagnosis happened before the release (but after it was recorded), fans may uncannily hear a sense of the foreboding at least in some songs.

On the new album, Jones does a mix of upbeat, powerful songs as well as slow ballad-like ones. The first track, Retreat!, sounds ominously like a reaction (it is probably not) to her recent diagnosis and treatment. But most of the dozen songs on the deluxe version of the album rarely cross the 3.5-minute mark, making you long for more. Just before I wrote this, I read that Jones was back on the gig circuit. That’s welcome news and one hopes that this spirited soul singer emerges stronger from the crisis she’s battled.

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