Grammy-nominated R&B band Southern Avenue visits the Holy Land

 SOUTHERN AVENUE members (from left) Ori Naftaly, Tierinii (and Naava), Ava and TK Jackson, in Jerusalem’s Old City, last week. (photo credit: Naftaly family)
SOUTHERN AVENUE members (from left) Ori Naftaly, Tierinii (and Naava), Ava and TK Jackson, in Jerusalem’s Old City, last week.
(photo credit: Naftaly family)

Combine one long-haired Israeli guitar whiz, three Memphis-bred, gospel-trained sisters, an adorable one-year-old baby, and a table buckling under platters of Jerusalem mixed grill, hummus, and pargiyout, and you get Southern Avenue’s excellent vacation in Israel.

The Grammy-nominated soul and R&B band is a true family affair. That long-haired guitarist, Ori Naftaly, is married to powerful lead singer Tierinii Jackson and they have a one-year-old girl, Naava. Tierinii’s two sisters, TK and classically trained Ava, play drums and sing harmony with the group respectively, which is rounded out by Jeremy Powell on keyboards Evan Sarver on bass.

Their respite in Israel, a first-time visit for TK and Ava, comes ahead of a handful of shows in the Netherlands and a New Year’s engagement in the Colorado Rockies. Fresh from snorkeling in Eilat, they had arrived in Jerusalem and spent the day in the Old City accompanied by Naftaly’s sister and father.

“I think it’s a beautiful bubble,” said Tierinii, who was on her fourth visit to the country, including one where she and Naftaly were married in Netanya two years ago.

“No place in the world shines like Israel,” she added, in a sentiment echoed by first-timers TK and Ava, who were raised as church-going, choir singers in Memphis.

 ISRAELI FLAGS flap in the wind on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount. (credit: OLIVER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) ISRAELI FLAGS flap in the wind on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount. (credit: OLIVER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

“I couldn’t wait to see how they reacted to Israel,” said Naftaly, who grew up in Even Yehuda. “I told them, here you can be loud and you can sing and dance and everyone will accept you.”

The rest of the world has been accepting Southern Avenue with increased fervor since they began performing in 2016. On the road around the world two-thirds of the year, they’ve become a staple on the roots music circuit, with appearances at major festivals like Bonnaroo and Lock’n, as well as tours with the likes of Sheryl Crow and the Tedeschi-Trucks band.

Their 2019 album Keep On was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category and its 2021 follow-up Be The Love You Want, further upped their game. Last month, the band released a new single, a drastically reworked version of the 1983 Genesis hit, “That’s All”.

As a recent article about the band in the San Diego Union Times put it: “Music. Love. Marriage. Kids. Tours. Three albums. More music.”

“Coming to Israel is really a vacation for us, a separation from our career. I’m not worrying about gigs here,” said Naftaly, adding that he’s not rushing to stage a show in Israel.

“WHEN THE right opportunity comes, we’ll do it. But I’m not worried about it. We get better every week and with every show. If we had played in Israel three years ago, it would have been without Ava (who joined a little more than a year ago after graduating from college). We’re so locked in and in two years, we’ll be even more locked in. So I’m not in a rush to play in Israel, although I can’t wait to.”

Who is Southern Avenue?

From gospel-tinged R&B, spiced by bluesy leads and Stax soul revue riffs, Southern Avenue’s music has evolved over the last six years but is still based around Tirienii’s fiery vocals and Naftaly’s blues-based soloing.

The Jackson sisters grew up around the gospel music of their Baptist church in Memphis, and their mother and father were musicians. Tierinii was the first to venture out to secular music well before she met Naftaly – a process she described as turbulent within her family.

“It was definitely rough in the beginning. I took the first hit because I was the oldest,” she said, explaining her parents’ initial resistance. “But we’ve grown through it, and our parents are loving and supportive of what we do.”

The sister laughed when asked if they were local celebrities in Memphis and identified walking down the streets. But they also nodded yes.

“We only play Memphis about once a year because we want to be valued there,” said Naftaly. “But everyone knows Tierinii and TK around town.”

During the pandemic, which in bad timing hit a month after the band was nominated for its Grammy, the band had to rethink its methods. Besides recording Be The Love You Want, they performed many live shows online for fans. It was a period, they all said, that brought them closer together.

“We have some amazing fans and supporters who helped us through the pandemic,” said Tirienii.

“We weren’t presenting ourselves to just our regular fan base but this whole other world online that we discovered during the pandemic,” added TK. “It was another twist in our whole story of being a band and I feel that we got through it.”

Although the post-pandemic touring world has become more expensive and challenging for a band, Southern Avenue is gearing up for resuming what they know best, playing music for live audiences, with 2023 booking up quickly.

Back when she initially joined up with Naftaly as a singer in his pre-Southern Avenue band, what would Tirienii have thought knowing that her future flourishing career would also result in an Israeli husband and a child?

“I would have run,” she laughed.

As the entourage finishes up its afternoon repast, young Naava stirs in her stroller and wakes up to a snack of aish tanor pita and hummus, facing adoring looks from her parents.

For Southern Avenue, music, life and family really are rolled up in one, messy, beautiful package.