Shir MadnessLeft - Deb Conway. Cover - KaOz Klezmer

means song. (You know what madness means. Barnaby Joyce, or Wilson Tuckey, or that fat bastard anti-Semite Liberal candidate whose name escapes me. Party political? Hardly. I reckon Turnbull's a top bloke.) But director of the inaugural Sydney Jewish Music Festival (to use its subtitle), Gary Holzman, and his hardworking committee, must've had a good, hard, self-deprecating belly-laugh at their own 'Shir Madness' in attempting a full day and evening, with 40 acts on 4 stages, first time out. It looks like they'll have the last laugh, however, as it seemed to prove a roaring success.

Regrettably, other commitments and the dreaded lurgy ruled me out as an early starter, let alone late finisher, so I was only able to modestly partake of this veritable Jewish tapas. This meant, much to my chagrin and regret, I was unable to catch Ghetto Blasterz winner, Shannon Gaitz, the non-shickser Shania, whose commercial country-pop future should be a foregone conclusion: move over, Taylor Dayne (aka Leslie Wunderman). She was on the Forever Young Stage, followed by Blackbird Hum, led by singer and guitarist, Joe Panic, with their distinctive acoustic roots-reggae.

Meanwhile, over on the Tapestry Stage, 16-year-old Moriah student, Doron Chester, was opening the bidding. His specialty? Chazanos, or cantorial music, among other things (you should hear this boy sing Hallelujah). Following in his footsteps was Ronit Granot, a robust singer and acoustic guitarist who puts me much in mind of the guerilla folk of Ani DiFranco or Fiona Apple. Around the same time, on the Hallelujah Stage, the (doubtless) sublime Combined Emanuel Choirs were lifting spirits, while Karma Fire (Rachal Lee Debono & Neville Kaye) were touting their soul-tinged blues acoustica on the Graceland Stage. So, yes, as with any festival worth its salt, the competition for one's attention was fierce and one simply couldn't see or hear it all. However, if you care to ready yourself for next year's, or just review this year's, the Shir Madness website is an excellent jumping-off point.

I also missed the likes of German virtuoso marimba savant, Alex Jacobowitz; hip-hop Chassidics The Asthmatix; Deborah Conway;  Fourplay; The Jews Brothers; Klezmer Connexion; the Leonie Cohen Trio; cabaret diva Joanna Weinberg; Monsieur Camembert; the Mark Ginsburg Band; MC Reason; Nadya & Her 101 Candles Orkestra. And that barely touches the sides.

My early-to-mid afternoon arrival put me in good stead to sample Alana Bruce & band, up from Melbourne (save for the special guest appearance of Sydney sax legend, Mark Ginsburg). Genre-bending jazz is as near as I can put her, even if Triple J labelled her 'indie rock' when they Unearthed her. Think Elana Stone; stylistically, vocally  & compositionally. Or Joni, first thing in the morning, before her first ciggy. The Whitlams would be another point of analogous departure.

Idiosyncratic original songs populated her set, save for a feisty feminist remake of Paul Simon's 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover. The Radioman is a languid, easy-swinging, jazz-infused blues ballad, about an everyday suburban character and the kind of involuntary adventurism on public transport in general that yields such encounters. It's from, I believe, her debut album, released last year, entitled Degrees Of Freedom. The surging rhythmic momentum of An Inner Raging Wilderness is proof-positive of the Joni analogy; Scenes From A Coffee Shop is an intimate confessional, a deep-chocolate devotional, a lullaby of latte love: 'I was sitting at a table in my favourite downtown cafe, when I noticed there King David amidst a crowded space, with brown curls and deep in thought'. So what does a red-blooded girl do when she spies a potential mate? Summon a waitress to take him a brownie, of course. 

Her pianism tends to betray classical training (by dint of effortless expertise, not any rigidity), but you can tell she listens to a diversity of styles; her captivating, observant, wry storytelling is another palpable dimension of her talent. Both, taken with her melting melodies, make for a stylish, velvety aural aesthetic ('though there's a Mia Dysonesque rasp in her voice that suggests a wolf in sheep's clothing) that would have you believe she's been performing for all of her 24 tender years.

Noam Blatt is something else again, with roots reaching deep into Middle Eastern culture at large, his performance starts with a group hug with his band. A piercingly blue-eyed bloke with a winning smile, he seems genuinely imbued with some kind of spirit. He sings like he hails from heaven: in the register and with the calibre of Rufus Wainwright. He sings in Hebrew as well as English; a seamless fusion of the ancient, traditional and contemporary, while paying witting or unwitting homage to an even wider, wilder world of influences, from flamenco to Yiddish folk, klezmer and gypsy. Prayerful, sad, tender and touching, but with a primal rhythmic undertow that almost compels one to dance. There's magic here: in his anecdotes, imbued with disarming sense of humour (like the one about his brother hankering to get back to a wartorn part of Israel after a week or so with their mother), songs and charismatic capacity to connect with an audience. Could this be the long-awaited Moshiach, at last?

As is so often and refreshingly the case, these days, Blatt defies classification. Suffice to say, if you like hearing the old songs, from the ghetto, you'll probably like NB. If you hanker for your younger days, on the kibbutz, you'll probably like NB. If you love Latin, you'll probably like NB. And so it goes. There's an intergenerational, non-denominational, secular and religious, multilingual universality about this young bloke. He has a way with an acoustic guitar too.

My final catch of the day was the final moments of The Naked Parade's set; another Triple J Unearthed excavation. Praise be to Hashem they dug 'em up, 'cause I really dig 'em too. And I'm clearly not Robinson Crusoe, since they've burst onto the Sydney scene, eating it up, like voracious fruitbats.

The violin seems to be de rigeuer, regardless of genre, at the minute, and TNP (Jeremy Curran, specifically) exploits its soaring qualities, expanding gypsy-flavoured licks into tight, tempting grooves; subverting guitar-driven alternative rock with darker colours that even hint at death metal. Easily surmounting this full-tilt wall of sound (Nicholas Lewis is fit to lead a whole new generation of guitar gods, while the rhythm section, featuring Luke Armstrong, on bass, and Tull Kidron, drums, certainly doesn't take a back seat) is the sensational, thrilling Talya Rabinovitz, coming on hot and strong with confident, soulful vocals. For a taste, I suggest the incendiary No Lace, from their provocatively-packaged The Science Of Lust EP, released just last month. TNP isn't just at the pointy end of indie, they're as sharp, innovative and original as it gets.

Long story short, Shir Madness couldn't have achieved its objectives more comprehensively, presuming its objectives centred around presenting the widest possible spectrum of Jewish music. It has instantaneously established itself as a must-see on Sydney's cultural calendar. And it again brings to mind the '60s Amertican ad campaign for Levy's Rye Bread, which proclaimed 'you don't have to be Jewish'.

Sydney Jewish Music Festival

Venue: Bondi Pavilion
Date: Sunday, August 15, 2010

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