People strolling along the shops and restaurants of the Tel Aviv Port last Thursday afternoon might have been puzzled by the raucous music emerging from the ACUM Beit Hayotzer facility at Hangar 22.

Generally, the intimate club/space run by the Association of Composers, Authors and Publishers of Music in Israel is used for intimate night time shows for up-and-coming performers, or as a rehearsal for young bands in need of a little assistance. But on this balmy final day of February, something special was going on inside the venue, which looks out on the bustling promenade.

A cavalcade of performers were performing brief 15-minute sets in succession for a straggling bunch of 20 listeners spread out over the folding chairs that had been set up in front of the stage. But there was really only one member of the audience that the artists – including little known bands like Zoo Harmonics, Water Knot and more established acts like Yossi Sassi (the guitarist for Orphaned Land) – really cared about impressing.

He was sitting near the back with a Tablet, sometimes videoing the performances, sometimes typing notes, all the time tapping his feet to the rhythms of the music. Occasionally, he would shake his head and mutter an “amazing” or “unbelievable,” preceded by his favorite cuss word.

The showcase performances, which took place on four consecutive days around the country, and featured over 20 Israel artists singing mostly in English, were a low-rent, high-talent version of American Idol with only one judge – Harvey Leeds.

One of the US record industry’s most colorful and experienced executives, the 60- year-old Leeds spent 35 years in the music promotion business at Sony, CBS and Epic Records, working with a who’s who of pop music, from The Clash to Bruce Springsteen, and was instrumental in the 1980s integrating the burgeoning MTV music video industry into the record promotion arsenal of tools.

He left the corporate fold four years ago to found his own management company Headquarters Media – in which he guides the careers of, among others, Southside Johnny – and to consult with some of the top concert promotion outfits in the world.

Leeds’ objective in coming to Israel for a lightning talent scouting visit was to identify one artist he could take under his wing to nurture and develop as a star in the US.

‘I LOOK at this a talent pool, and, for whatever reason that I don’t get, it’s not being tapped,” said Leeds, who was invited to the country by Jeremy Hulsh, the director of Oleh! Records, a Tel Aviv-based non-profit organization that promotes young Israeli artists singing in English. Hulsh organized the private showcases which took place in Tel Aviv, Dimona and Jerusalem.

Leeds’ interest in Israeli music was sparked by seeing the indie rockers Tiny Fingers perform at the CMJ Music Marathon showcase in New York last year.

“God, those guys were great. So I started listening to a bunch of other Israeli bands and thought ‘this is **** unbelievable!’” said Leeds enthusiastically. “Then Jeremy sends me something like 250 artists to listen to – a lot was what I expected, but then there was some extraordinary, mindboggling shit there. I said I have to come over there and figure this thing out.”

During the Thursday afternoon performance by Sassi and his talented band which effortlessly merged metal, Middle Eastern motif, jazz and rock, Leeds was especially animated, jumping up to tape Sassi’s fluid guitar runs and shaking his head in amazement.

“I’d love to sign someone, but I’m getting confused now,” said Leeds after the showcase. “There’s so much variety – what am I looking for? I don’t know. I see Yossi and he’s playing these Middle Eastern scales, it’s something very different than what we know in the US – but is it mass appeal? “Some of the music I’ve heard didn’t have to be from Israel, it could have been made in Brooklyn. I’ve heard three bands this week that could have been from Texas,” he added, citing Tamir Greenberg, an 18-year-old singer who Leeds describes as a cross between “Ray Charles and Joe Cocker” and having “a million dollar smile.”

“It’s music that can travel and it’s universal – it’s forever. So I get confused with all this talent, I don’t know... but right now, I’m just digging the music.”

Leeds has been digging music for most of his life, and it began to pay off for him when he became the CBS Records college representative while attending Syracuse University in the early 1970s.

“I made $15 a week and got $25 a week in expenses,” recalled Leeds. “I would bring records to the radio station and be in touch with the student concert board, and I used to get all the free records I wanted.”

When he graduated in 1975, Leeds became the East Coast college rep for the company and had students like he had been working under him at all the major universities.

“I never had to wear a suit, never had to grow up,” he said, adding that even when he officially retired four years ago, he knew that he would never stop looking for good music to promote.

“For me, it’s just for fun now, and that hope that’s always there of finding someone great. And I’ve realized that Israel is as good a place as any to look. I don’t understand why all these music execs in the US aren’t coming to the table – there’s so much great music here.”

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