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Nefesh Mountain plays a different kind of holiday show

The Barn at Levon Helm's studio (livestream), Woodstock, N.Y., December 12, 2020

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

In this holiday season of concerts, it seems to be all about the Christmas holiday spirit, but no one told bluegrass band Nefesh Mountain. They brought the joy of the season for sure, but it was all about hope and Channukah, a festival of freedom.

The band, led by the husband-and-wife team of Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg, made it clear from the get go that this was not your traditional fare as "Bright Morning Stars" interspersed Hebrew and English in the upbeat rendering.

Nefesh Mountain previewed some of their upcoming disc, starting with "Piece Of The Sun," with the title suggested by Zasloff and Lindberg's three-year-old daughter, Millie. Lindberg described the song as being about "peace, hope and hopefully better days ahead." The song is a message to their daughter about brighter days while also citing the plight of Anne Frank. Zasloff was a pretty, expressive vocalist with the couple's vocals sometimes merging. Lindberg's acoustic guitar stood out throughout.

The concert went the Chanukah route, leaning heavily on Woody Guthrie. The first of three Guthrie songs was "Hanukah Dance." (Guthrie was not Jewish, but his second wife and mother of Arlo, Marjorie Mazia Greenblatt was).

The song may not be top shelf Guthrie with lyrics such as "Tippy tap toe! Happy Hanukah/'Round you go! My little latke/On your toes! Happy Hanukah/And around and around you go." But it obviously fit the season and theme of the concert.

Good move to include something that's not part of the tried-and-true Chanukah song canon with Lindberg demonstrating his banjo skills.

They also would offer "Hanukah's Flame" with words by Nefesh Mountain and music by Guthrie. Lindberg opined that while the festival may be thought of as being about presents all eight nights, he emphasized the hopefulness of the occasion, a key theme tonight.

And yet a third Guthrie song, "Happy Joyous Hanuka," which – not a negative comment – sounded like a perfect singalong for kids. Not to mention a song that ought to get your feet moving fast.

The show had an upbeat feel in both song and comments. In introducing "The Narrow Bridge," Zaslow said, "This song feels like the right song to sing right now with everything going on in the world...This song is a song of hope and love and reminder that we're going to get through to the other side, and there's light at the end of the tunnel, and we're going to get through this together." The song was based on a saying by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and 18th-19th century religious leader.

"Troubled times stay behind," Zaslow sang in a slow tempo beginning before it picked up steam.

Nefesh Mountain continued the optimistic look ahead on their take on "On and On (L'dor Vador)" with lines like "the light in us shines on and on" with bits of the song in Hebrew.

The mash-ups continued in other ways as well with "Calum Sgaire," a Scottish tune, featuring fiddle player Alan Grubner, merging into James Taylor's "You Can Close Your Eyes" from "Mud Slide Slim" with Lindberg taking lead vocals.

After taking a short break, Nefesh Mountain (well really Lindberg and band as Zasloff only sings) kicked off the second set with "Eretz's Reel," an instrumental from their last disc. Once again, Grubner played a key role with his clean and spirited playing before turning it over to Lindberg's banjo.

Recorded live at Levon Helm Studios in New York, they were aided and abetted by a trio of backing musicians – Grubner, upright bassist Max Johnson (both of Nefesh Mountain) and guest mandolinist Maddie Whitler of The Lonely Heartstring Band. All contributed to a most lively evening of music.

One part of Nefesh Mountain that continued was their forward looking attitude on such songs as "Somewhere On This Mountain" with Zasloff and Lindberg trading stanzas and the latter featuring Grubner's stellar playing on the interlude.

Chanukah came back into play with Lindberg going solo on banjo playing an ultra non-traditional approach to a medley of festival songs including "Maoz Tzur" ("Rock of Ages") and "Oy Hanukah."

They went for the folkie side on Tom Paxton's "The Last Thing On My Mind" with only Whitler aboard and Dylan's "The Time's They Are A-Changin'." Both featured the harmonies of Lindberg and Zasloff.

"We wish you hope and some light, and we know the world's going to be better for you," said Zasloff before closing the night out with a slow take on Dylan's "I Shall Be Released," a song of redemption.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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