Jazz has been doing brisk business in Israel for more than three decades. Now the blues scene is starting to get up to speed. The annual Tel Aviv Blues Festival is helping to keep the genre’s flag flying high, with the fifth edition due to take place November 22 to 25.
As with the first four years, the majority of the artists come from Israel, and artistic director Yamit Hagar has culled a wide range of musicians – from mainstream blues and other associated musical climes – in putting together a program that takes in 60 ticketed and free shows at 20 venues around Tel Aviv.
The schedule also transcends the geographic urban boundaries, with “extramural” slots set for Beersheba, Kiryat Ono, Herzliya, Zichron Ya’acov and Mitzpe Ramon.
The names of some of our leading blues lights, such as guitarist-vocalist Itai Perl, veteran performers Mickey Shaviv and Danny Litani, and vocalistharmonica player Dov Hammer and the Blues Rebels are in there. So is the SOBO band, one of the mainstays of the blues scene for the past 20 years or so, which will join forces with the big foreign draw of the festival, EB Davis. SOBO and Davis will do their thing at Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv on November 23 and 24 (10 p.m., both) Although he is a longtime resident of Germany, Davis certainly hails from the right part of the world. The 72-year-old was born in the Delta town of Elaine, Arkansas, and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. He relocated to New York in the 1960s, and to Germany in the 1980s.
Davis says he imbibed the blues with his mother’s milk and was enveloped in the sonic and emotional vibes of the art form in its birthplace.
“Coming from the Delta had a tremendous influence on me and my love of the blues because I first heard blues being played by a neighbor when I was maybe eight years old,” he recalls, adding that accepted local wisdom of the time restricted his infant access to the music that eventually became his life.
“Up to that time, I had only heard gospel, as the blues was not allowed to be played in the house.
It was considered by my family and family friends to be the devil’s music. But even at that tender age when I first heard the blues, it touched me in ways that the gospel music never did because he was singing about things that I could relate to,” he explains.
Mind you, it’s not as if Davis had a problem with the “kosher” stuff.
“My earliest forms of inspiration were the gospel singers. Some of them could stand in the middle of a church, just five or six voices with no instrumentation, and hold the audience spellbound with just their vocalizing and harmony abilities. I saw the same ecstasy in the church as I later saw with the soul singers,” he adds.
Things changed for Davis when he was in his teens, when he pulled up stakes and headed north to Memphis. It was more than a geographic shift for the youngster.
“I moved in with an older cousin living in Memphis when I was 14 or 15. It totally changed my impression of the music because I was then exposed to new kinds of music – swing, jazz, country, etc., and, of course, blues,” he recounts.
Davis got a new handle on the roots music.
“I fell in love with the blues completely because of the Memphis approach to it. It was more contemporary and mixed because a lot of the Memphis musicians would play together, regardless of the genre they came from. Jazz musicians, country musicians, rock and roll, they all played together,” he says.
The popular commercial acts of the 1950s and ‘60s also left their mark on Davis’s evolving musical consciousness.
“I liked Elvis because he was a good singer and a magnificent stage presence. I also liked some of the British groups, but they didn’t have any influence on me because they were only imitating the things that had been done by many of the black blues musicians that I already knew. The first hit records of Elvis – “That’s All Right, Mama,” for example – had already been done by [Delta blues singer-songwriter] Arthur Crudup. However, I do appreciate the fact that the so-called ‘British invasion’ reintroduced the Americans to their own music. I admired Chuck Berry very much because of his ability to take simple subjects and turn them into something lyrically very special. He definitely had a knack for the play on words,” he says.
Over the years, Davis has mixed it with iconic artists such as B.B.
King, Isaac Hayes, Ray Charles and The Drifters, and he is appreciative of the opportunities that came his way.
“I always felt it was an honor for me to be performing with the giants because these were people at the pinnacle of what they were doing. And even being the world star that they were, I that found most of them, when away from the spotlight, were very down to earth – nice people. B.B. King was one of the nicest guys that one could ever hope to meet,” he asserts.
Davis also adopted some of his idols’ positive traits.
“I admired how most of them took care of their people, which I try very hard to imitate today,” he says.
After more than half of a century of gigging and recording – Davis performs on close to 20 albums – the septuagenarian’s attitude to his craft has never wavered.
“Over the years, my approach to music has changed very little. For me, it has always been and always will be the communication, telling a story in a way that is relatable to whomever you’re sharing the story with. In most cases, it’s your audience. My basic approach is that the audience paid to see you, so give everything you have to make sure they didn’t waste their money,” he reasons.
The blues has also provided Davis with a life philosophy.
“What the blues means to me would take a long time to explain.
Suffice to say, to me, it means the truth among falsehoods because it speaks to real life. To me, the blues is the truth,” he declares.
It has also opened up doors for him.
“On a more personal level, it is something that has given me the opportunity to see and perform in more than 60 countries, see things and meet people that I could not even imagine when I first got into it,” he marvels.
Thankfully, Israel is about to join the list of the blues man’s evolving globe trotting. And he is appreciative of the chance to strut his stuff here and is looking forward to joining his Israeli co-professionals on stage in Tel Aviv.
“A big tip of the hat to the SOBO Blues Band for bringing me here for the first time,” he says.
“Hopefully, it will not be the last.”
The Tel Aviv Blues Festival takes place November 22 to 25. For tickets and more information: tlvbluesfest.com