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Irreverent, indecorous and unrepentant are all epithets that spring to mind when one mentions the Taverners. Anyone who has ever caught one of their shows over the last 30 years would have witnessed a bunch of grown men playing all manner of folk-oriented and bluesy music, and doing their best to shock the audience. But, above all, the Taverners have always been about entertaining.
Last weekend the band played at the Jacob's Ladder Festival at Nof Ginosar, by the gently lapping waters of a somewhat depleted Kinneret. It marked an eagerly awaited reunion of the group which first joined forces in 1976 and finally disbanded in 2002 when banjo player David Deckelbaum and fiddler Jonathan Miller went back to Canada and the States respectively. They, and their Israeli-based colleagues - guitarist Shai Tochner, flute player and whistler extraordinaire Elisha Avshalom - and British born multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Paul Moore were delighted to be back on stage together in Israel.
"It's been wonderful to be here, and to be together again," said Deckelbaum, whose singer-songwriter daughter Yael and banjo playing son Ron made guest appearances at Nof Ginosar last week. "It's great to see how people respond to us after all these years." The band will also play at Jerusalem's Sergei Courtyard on Wednesday at 8p.m.
When Deckelbaum and a few like-minded pals started regular Thursday evening jam sessions at the Tavern - the establishment that gave the band its name - on Jerusalem's Rivlin Street, he had no idea the troupe would eventually embark on what has been a successful musical career. "There was something of a void here back then, in terms of the kind of music we played," he says. "When I came here the first time, in 1962, I think I had the only banjo in the country." In fact, Deckelbaum's arrival in Israel was more a matter of spontaneity than any preconceived ideological intent. "I was bumming around Athens and I saw a sign offering the last four tickets for a boat to Israel for only $45. I had nothing to do that night, so I came to Israel."
While many American and British olim had been brought up on the so-called "folk revival," with the music of the likes of Pete Seeger and the Weavers, in the Sixties very few sabras had heard that music. "When I started going to the Tavern, in the mid-Seventies, there was no one to play with," says Deckelbaum. Jerusalem-born Tochner, however, was one of the "enlightened" few. "The American Consulate library was just down the road from my house in Mamila and, as a kid, I listened to lots of folk and bluegrass records they had there. When I met David [Deckelbaum] we met on [musical] home ground." Tochner also spent many years in Britain, mostly in Scotland, where he honed his folk and bluegrass playing skills.
US-born fiddler Miller was always one of the more energetic members of the band, and also achieved some fame outside the group in the Eighties when he was part of Yigal Bashan's chart-topping Hoppa Hey group. However, despite growing up in New York Miller was not weaned on the kind of music he was, eventually, to play with the Taverners. "When I was a kid there was one radio station in New York that played country music, WHN, and, as soon as I heard it, I would change the channel because I hated country music."
Miller later studied classical violin, but all that changed when he went to college. "When I was in high school I remember seeing a banjo player sitting out in the yard and I couldn't understand what he was doing. But then, when I was at college, I met a couple of Jewish Deadheads from Long Island who were into the Grateful Dead, [bluegrass founder fiddler] Vassar Clements and [1970s bluegrass group] and Old and in the Way. They basically ruined my life," Miller laughed. "David Deckelbaum and Shai Tochner always used to say they led me astray, but I told them those guys did that before them."
Deckelbaum also has a couple of takes on why he picked up the banjo in the first place. Being inspired by seeing Pete Seeger on stage is the original, more conventional, explanation. But he has another more colorful story to tell. "When I studied at McGill University [in Montreal], [legendary poet, singer songwriter] Leonard Cohen was president of my fraternity. He played guitar and we used to go to lots of parties, and I noticed all the girls would flock around him and some mandolin and banjo players. So playing the banjo seemed like a good idea."
Unlike Tochner, Avshalom didn't grow up on folk and bluegrass, but he later spent time in Ireland and became one of the best tin whistle players here, and is probably Israel's finest whistler. "I was drawn to the music, possibly to the joy of it," says Avshalom. Moore, naturally, was well versed in the art form before his path crossed Deckelbaum's.
Twenty-six years (during which the band performed over 1,200 gigs) is a long time for any group to stay together. Avshalom says it has been an occasionally bumpy, but mostly raucous ride. "I can't say there haven't been any tense moments, like in any family, but I really do feel like we are a family. It has been a wonderful experience."
The Taverners will appear at the Sergei Courtyard in Jerusalem on Wednesday at 9 pm. For registration and advance booking call 02-6252357, 9 am.-6 pm.