It takes a village, or in Idan Raichel’s case, a talented backing band of 10 to inject drama to his live act. By culling musical flavors from the far corners of Israeli society throbbing with multicultural influence, the songwriter, bandleader, and keyboardist has crafted the mainstream pop music of an imagined nation — or, perhaps, of his homeland seen in its best, most pluralistic light.
The ensemble, something of an all-star group of Israeli artists generally unknown stateside, juxtaposed Middle Eastern, African, and Mediterranean influences with varying success but a dogged confidence that piano ballads introduced by oud solos, hand-clapping tribal stompers, and syrupy pop ballads can gel into something that works as more than concept.
These region-hopping musical moves dovetailed with a polyglot lyrical touch; Hebrew, Arabic, and languages from Yemen and Ethiopia were among those mix-and-matched, sometimes within the same song. (Though it seems broadly multiethnic, this mix is grounded in a specifically Jewish cultural perspective.)
The more-is-more approach worked more than it didn’t. Ballads like “Other People’s Dreams” tended to land flatly, but the well-paced set did well to stash its sluggish moments as respite between doses of aisle-clogging dance party that, finally, defined the evening.
The most exciting aspect of the Idan Raichel Project (as it’s billed) turns out to be the “project.” Raichel led perhaps half the numbers, but things peaked when the trio of backing singers took turns fronting the group.
Maya Avraham and Avi Vograss Vesa were standouts, whether when Avraham curled her attractive vocals around the curves of “Cada Día,” or Vesa aimed for the cheap seats with the floating, wordless introduction to “Hinach Yafah (Thou Art Beautiful).” Vesa was also cheerleader in chief, his merest gesture cueing hundreds of heretofore stoic concertgoers to flood the front of the room from their seats.
Raichel was a warm presence between songs and an emotive (if not particularly distinctive) vocalist, but his centerpiece numbers — limp, synthesizer-heavy ballads — suggest that his instincts for songcraft and arrangement tend to retard the progress he makes elsewhere as talent scout and conceptual alchemist. Stripped of gloss, a keyboard duet with guest Tali Rubinstein (who played recorder) sounded casually beautiful.
I don’t know if there are places in Israel where Ethiopian and Yemeni Jews dance with their Arab neighbors to African-spiced barnburners in 12/8 meter. But looking around at the all-ages audience that drank this music in — including a boy of about 10 who climbed onstage for a while simply to smile and clap along — I had the sense that there are. Or could be.
goodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.