Jacob’s Ladder Folk Festival
Hof Ginossaur, Kinneret
‘It’s not a festival, it’s a community,” exclaimed Jacob’s Ladder Folk Festival director and MC Menachem Vinograd from the stage at one point Friday night, deep into the festival’s run of talent.
And he’s right. Since the first Jacob’s Ladder Festival took place in 1978 in an olive grove on the grounds of Kibbutz Mahanayim, the annual Anglo-oriented musical and cultural hootenany has gradually ossified into what it is today – a weekend reunion for the thousands of loyal attendees who descend on Kibbutz Ginossaur every May to relax, camp out, reconnect, swim, eat, dance, commune with nature and listen to some of the most uplfifting music the country (and visitors from abroad) have to offer.
While an increasing number of native Israelis are joining the ranks – including comedian Avi Kushnir who said he was “here to enjoy,” and many grown children of the initial hippie immigrants who have been attending since the beginning years – English is still the predominant language you hear everywhere. Atendees often stage their annual reunions with friends from other parts of the country, and some communities – such as the Anglo contingent from Pardes Hanna-Karkur – go to great lengths to establish a mini-community, establishing a virtual kibbutz with assigned culinary and cleanup tasks for the two-day festival. As one attendee put it, “For 363 days of the year, we adapt to Israeli norms, culture and language. This weekend, it’s like we’re back in our native country.”
That could refer not only to the music, but to the vibe – mellow, non-confrontational, well-organized, and environmentally friendly – and to the choices – a virtual American supermarket of musical options. In addition to the main outdoor stage, shows took place in another, smaller outdoor venue, in the conference room of the main hotel building – and in just about every available nook and cranny in the hotel lobby.
But music, while the major attraction, is only one facet of what the festival offers – yoga, tai chi, square dancing, contra dancing, dance and music workshops, face painting, and non-stop swimming in the Kinneret and the Ginossaur pool.
Religiously observant attendees could join in a rousing musical Kabbalat Shabbat courtesy of members of Jerusalem’s Kol Haneshama synagogue, and buy food coupons for use on Shabbat at the dozens of food outlets stationed throughout the grounds, ranging from tortillas to Chinese food.
But, of course, the main attraction is the music. And while there was no blow-away act this year, as The Abram Brothers were reputed to have been in recent festivals, there was a consistently enjoyable roster of performers. It’s impossible to hear all the artists, but the main event on Friday night, which most festival goers attend, was a resounding success. The highlight came relatively early with the appearance of the only ‘import’ act, Henry’s Notions, a band from Alabama, performing an unlikely but winning mix of Irish, Scotting and Appalachian tunes.
THE REST of the headliners consisted of cover acts, ranging from the blues rock of the all-women She Rock (featuring the harp playing of the all-male Dave the Hairdresser), to the ’60s protest songs theme set of Lilac Sheer and festival veteran Shay Tochner (of the Taverners). If there was one complaint through the evening, it was over the unimaginative song choices, with She Rock relying on warhorses like “Mustang Sally” and Sheer’s bell-like voice not being used to its potential with worn out songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” – instead of choosing some less obvious protest songs by the likes of Phil Ochs or Dave Von Ronk.
The same goes for the evening’s left field act, Ummagumma – a young, native Israeli ’60s-’70s cover band – who started off with a woeful rendition of The Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye” but recovered with a decent set of ’60s hits, high on inspiration but low on imagination. Standouts included versions of Cream’s “Badge” and Free’s “All Right Now.”
The main event came to a close in the middle of Friday night with a solid Chicago blues show by the always consistent CG & the Hammer, who had the dance section to the side of the stage filled with those that were still awake.
But for many, the musical high points of the festival take place after the main stage shuts down for the night, when the Ginossaur hotel becomes alive with jam sessions. An all-night Irish music session annually takes place in the hotel’s conference room with a rotating cast of musicians and musical themes.
Then down in the lobby, British singer-songwriter Jason Feddy was holding court in one corner with a slew of acoustic accompaniment, while in another area, members of Henry’s Notions refused to put their instruments away and jammed until the wee hours with Israeli compatriots. Among the highlights was a welcoming endless rendition of “Midnight Moonlight,” the bluegrass/folk standard popularized by the Jerry Garcia-led Old and in the Way.
One would think that by Saturday, there wouldn’t be any more music left
to play, but it was another day full of fun and surprises. Besides
shows taking place at both outdoor venues, the hotel’s conference room
featured a pleasing set by the Anglo-Israeli country rock band Red
Meadow, and a standout, standing-room-only performance by visiting New
York musical comic Sean Altman a.k.a Jewmongous. Altman, who writes
hilarious and irreverent acoustic rock songs about his awakening Jewish
awareness, was the festival’s dark horse, and for me, its highlight.
But that’s the beauty of Jacob’s Ladder. Everyone’s able to find what
they’re looking for – whether it’s attending as many musical
performances as possible, or just hanging poolside all day with a good
book. While Boombamela, Shantipi and Beresheet receive all the
publicity for being the “alternative” Israeli music festivals to
attend, Jacob’s Ladder just keeps on keeping on, being the country’s
best-kept festival secret.