Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
t may have been none too pleasant outside weather-wise, but Nefesh Mountain brought the warmth of the season with its very narrow (and unique) niche of Jewish bluegrass and mountain music during Chanukah.
And with a supportive, nearly sold-out crowd in the house, Nefesh Mountain combined superb bluegrass musical chops, several Chanukah songs from the Woody Guthrie canon (yes, that is correct) and a few good personal stories to boot.
Nefesh Mountain is the creation of Doni Zasloff and her husband, Eric Lindberg. They both took lead vocals with Zasloff's pleasant voice bringing the requisite emotion and/or engagement to the material.
That was particularly true on "A Sparrow's Song," from last year's "Songs for the Sparrows." The song, one of six played from the release, was inspired by a family trip Zasloff took with her mother to Eastern Europe, which included a vain attempt to find the graves of her great grandparents killed during the Holocaust. Decrying anti-Semitism, Zasloff stated, "there's got to be more love in the world."
Lindberg, who also played guitar, provided a vocal contrast to Zasloff with the two sometimes trading stanzas or providing backing vocals to the other.
Like any bluegrass show, the band was featured numerous times, including the lyrical playing found on "Big Mountain" Alan Grubner on violin and Thomas Castle on mandolin often faced off against each other with bassist Erik Alvar showcasing his skills as well. There was a lot to like about the playing with Zasloff understandably sometimes dancing to her bandmates.
Nefesh Mountain wove into several Guthrie songs about Chanukah throughout the 80-minute concert. Yes, there is more to Guthrie than "This Land is Your Land" and songs relating to the American social fabric.
Not everything was bright and cheery in keeping with typical perceptions about the Jewish festival as Guthrie's "Hanukah's Flame" was on the dark side.
Nefesh Mountain went lighter on the Chanuka songs though, closing out the regular set with the "Happy Joyous Hanuka." Perhaps more geared to kids with its simple lyrics, Nefesh Mountain engaged the crowd to chime in on the chorus of the Guthrie-penned lyrics (A member of klezmer band The Klezmatics wrote the music).
And the theme continued with the encore of "Hannukah Dance."
While perhaps easy to pigeon hole Nefesh Mountain and diminish what they bring to the table, Zasloff, Lindberg and band proved both through song and playing that doing so would be a mistake.
Taylor Ashton played a short solo acoustic set that featured his warm vocals. Ashton, a Canadian now living in Brooklyn, lightened his set with a good sense of humor. That was perhaps never more so than in introducing and playing his new release "Santa's Song (I Don't Believe In Myself" even though he was well aware that the crowd was perhas exclusively Jewish. With a new album due next August, Ashton, playing both banjo and acoustic guitar, offered a few new songs, including "Honey."
Editor's note: there are different ways to spell Chanukah in English.