Getting in on the act

Normally headlining their own shows, tonight Asaf Avidan and Rickie Lee Jones will open for Bob Dylan, who has served as a major influence.

Rickie Lee Jones 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
Rickie Lee Jones 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
Imagine walking out on a stage with just an acoustic guitar before thousands of people, none of whom are there to see you. That dream/nightmare scenario will play out tonight for Asaf Avidan and Rickie Lee Jones, the two warm up acts for Bob Dylan before his performance at Ramat Gan stadium. But despite the somewhat precarious position they find themselves in, neither artist would trade their chance to share the stage with their primary formative idol for a second.
When interviewed by The Jerusalem Post in 2009 around the time he filled the opening slot for a Tel Aviv show by Morrissey and the New York Dolls, Avidan said that he didn’t particularly like warming up someone else’s crowd, preferring instead to appear before his own fans.
“But this is an exception,” laughed Avidan in a phone call over the weekend from Paris where he was performing for his record company Sony with his band the Mojos.
“I don’t even know where to start; it’s surreal. I have a few t-shirts in my wardrobe, but only one with a drawing on it – and it’s a Dylan t-shirt – he’s that important for me. It’s kind of like the Beatles; you don’t really remember when you started listening to Dylan – he’s always been there.”
“When I made the transition a few years ago from being an animator to a musician, there wasn’t a bigger influence on me. I kind of discovered [1988 Dylan album] Oh Mercy then and took something from his songs like “Most of the Time and “Man in the Long, Black Coat.” They reveal things in the lyrics that most people try to hide.”
Avidan’s sentiments were seconded by Jones, speaking last week from her California home.
“I don’t see him as being influential on me as a songwriter – he was influential well before that. I probably heard his first record when I was 10 or 11,” said Jones.
“His kind of influence is like the Beatles – or democracy. It’s the ground you stand on.”
The accolades reflect the multigenerational blanket that Dylan’s music has weaved for songwriters as diverse as the 57-year-old American Jones, the rootsy hipster known for her 1970s signature tune “Chuck E’s in Love,” and the 31-year-old Israeli Avidan – one of the country’s most dynamic artists, who’s been compared favorably to everyone from a young Dylan to a post-modern Jeff Buckley, Robert Plant or Janis Joplin.
“While my music genre is kind of different than Dylan’s, in the end, it ‘s all story telling and people singing from their hearts,” said Jones, adding that she wasn’t going to be intimidated by the prospects of a potentially impatient, inattentive crowd.
“You can play games with yourself, saying ‘this is going to be hard – they’re not there to see me, they’re going to be walking around’ or you can say, ‘this is going to be fun, I’m going to sing my heart out and it’s gonna be good.’”
Avidan, who instead of performing with his band the Mojos, will be appearing solo with accompaniment only by Mojos’ cellist Hadas Kleinman, said he was well aware that the audience wasn’t there to see him.
“They’re probably not interested in me at all, and I realize that,” he said.
“And I’ll try to respect it, by making my set as to the point as I can. It will be modest and respectful, which is why we’re doing it acoustic with Hadas and myself.
I’m not going to use the stage to play new songs, but the ones I think some people might know. I’ll do my set and get off.”
Avidan and Kleinman will repeat their acoustic arrangements of his songs in another show on Wednesday night at the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv.
Neither Avidan nor Jones – normally used to playing clubs or theaters – felt intimidated by the expected size of the crowd or the stadium venue.
“It’s no so much the amount of the people – but the fact that they’re not there to see me,” said Avidan.
“It’s not even like a big crowd at a festival where people come to see many acts and you’re one of them.”
“Once you have more than 30 people in a room, the audience size isn’t so significant,” added Jones, who last performed in Israel at the Red Sea Jazz Festival last August.
“I've played in front of large audiences a few times – like at the second Farm Aid show – and I remember looking out and feeling like I could see everybody if I wanted to. That’s the main thing – do you fee like you can make contact with the audience or not?” “It’s more awesome than it is frightening,” Jones said, recalling she’s only opened up a big show once – and it was in Israel for Ray Charles. “That was pretty wonderful.”
Jones said she’s looking forward to getting onstage, after taking a six-month break from touring to work on her memoirs.
“I think it will be a nice set and complement Bob’s. What I do is so heartfelt, it will be fun,” she said. “I’m not going to be onstage for long – it’s quite a trip to Israel from California to play for 30 minutes, but I can’t wait.”
While concert-goers might think that the artists are all sitting around schmoozing with each other back stage, neither Avidan nor Jones – who was erroneously rumored by Yediot Aharonot to be dueting with Dylan during his set – was expecting to be granted an audience with Dylan, known for his reclusiveness.
“I’ve asked a few times to play with him and let him know I wanted to, so it was nice that it’s finally going to happen. I’ve never performed on the same show as him before, even though we’ve met a couple times,” said Jones, adding she hadn’t been approached about joining Dylan onstage.
“Nobody’s mentioned performing with him – I’m just going to play my show. Of course, I’d be happy to, as long as I knew the song. I only know the older stuff – we’re talking about pre-1972.”
Avidan has illusions about performing with Dylan, or even getting the chance to meet him in the heavily cordoned off backstage city.
“It’s a pretty unsure thing actually. And what would I say – ‘I like your music?’ It’s not like you can put it in one sentence,” he said.
“But if I had the time to actually sit with him and talk to him, I think I’d ask him for some tips on how to do this for 30 or 40 years. I’ve been writing and performing for five years, and it’s beginning to take its toll. I want to understand how one wants to keep doing it every day for practically the rest of your life. How do you do that?”
While Avidan may not have the chance to pose that question, it doesn’t matter to the local hero. The real reward is getting to see Dylan perform up close.
“You bet I’m going to stick around to see the main act,” he said. “I’m looking forward to that more than I am to playing. Seeing Dylan perform from back stage is going to be a once in a lifetime experience.”
For one night, at least, the artists who are usually entertaining us, can revert back into what they once were – fans.
Monday night’s show will start exactly at 8:15 p.m. according to the show’s production team. Concert-goers are advised to arrive by 7:30 p.m. The gates to the stadium will be open at 3:30 p.m. for those who want to arrive early.
Rickie Lee bucks boycott
A few days after it was announced that Rickie Lee Jones had signed on to open the Bob Dylan show in Israel, she received an email.
“It was from my local left-wing radio station asking me to reconsider going to Israel and performing,” she said. “So I wrote a pretty good answer back that I’m going to send to them.”
Revealing the contents of the letter to The Jerusalem Post, Jones rejected the boycott call, writing, “If I boycott all nations because of their government’s policies that I disagree with, I’d have a hard time working anywhere… surely my own country is guilty of the most grievous crimes against its own people (and other countries) and I don’t punish the people of the United States because of those crimes.”
“Please don’t mistake what I say as approval of Israeli domestic policies and social attitudes toward its non-Jewish residents,” she added, citing the country’s “terrible treatment of Palestinians under Israeli rule.”
“But to be frank, if I were to boycott any nations, it would be the Muslim nations for the practice of mutilating women, suppressing free speech and encouraging terrorism,” she wrote.
Jones summed up her position by writing, “It’s an honor for me to play with Bob Dylan in Israel, and it’s an honor for Israel to have us there. For musicians not to come play in Israel is a publicity ploy that does more harm than good.
“Playing music is always good - it’s a magical creature wherever it goes.”