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Rock Of Ages

Liel Leibovitz

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week
07/29/2005

It is the night before Christmas, and Manhattan’s B.B. King’s Blues Club and Grill in Times Square is packed with young fans, some of whom had been waiting for hours. A sleepy-voiced announcer welcomes the band, and four young men in their early 20s saunter onto the stage. A few tune-ups and they are ready for their first song.

The music begins, the guitar jogging fast, the drums playing catch-up, the bass jetting in to tie the unit together into a rhythmic melody, inspiring nodding heads and snapping fingers.

Enter the lead singer, a mellow tenor in a short-sleeved white button-down and an acoustic guitar, exuding the kind of calm confidence common in singer-songwriters of the Dave Matthews ilk.

One not paying attention to the lyrics, or noticing the tzitzit dangling from beneath the lead guitarist’s shirt, easily could have mistaken the band for any of New York’s up-and-coming rock groups crooning about love and sex and relationships.

But Dov Rosenblatt, 24, is singing in Hebrew and about moshiach, a sea of boys in yarmulkes is undulating to the beat, and girls in long skirts are alternately shrieking and singing along to every word.

Such is the life of Blue Fringe (www.bluefringe.com), one of the more popular acts in the vanguard of bands helping to revive the Jewish music scene.

With a first album, “My Awakening,” that was a runaway hit two years ago; a new album, “70 Faces,” released last month; and a steadily growing fan base packing its shows from Johannesburg to Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, the boys in the band — all Yeshiva University graduates — are struggling to reconcile the rowdiness of rock with the spiritual depth of their faith.

Judging by at least one timeless classic rock standard — shrieking females — they are doing well.

‘It’s About The Music’

On a sweltering summer day in June, three members of Blue Fringe — Rosenblatt, Avi Hoffman and Hayyim Danzig — are sitting down for an interview in a kosher lunch spot across the street from YU. Danny Zwillenberg, the drummer, couldn’t come — he’s an assistant kindergarten teacher at Ramaz.

Nevertheless, the band seems like a trio aptly playing a piece written for a quartet: Between bites of pizza and salad, they finish each other’s sentences, further each other’s thoughts, delight in amicable banter.

Their seasoned routine is a testament to the fact that they’ve been together for a while.

For nearly four years, with a growing degree of intensity, the four have played hundreds of gigs, mostly traveling by car cramped with their equipment. Along with at least one weekly two-hour rehearsal, that’s plenty of time and ripe circumstances to develop a deep knowledge of each other as well a strong group identity.

“Maybe this time we could give out more than five CDs,” somebody says, and the others crack up.

An explanation follows: When the first Blue Fringe album was released in 2003, Zwillenberg advocated that they give their families no more than five copies per band member, claiming that all other copies had to be sold in an attempt to make a profit on the self-published CD.

“My Awakening” has sold upwards of 14,000 copies, a tremendous amount for the limited realm of Jewish music in which “anything above 10,000 is a best-seller,” according to a spokesman for Sameach Music, the primary distributor in the field.

With “70 Faces” slated to arrive later that afternoon, the members of Blue Fringe are teasing Zwillenberg in absentia; this time they are confident they can be a bit more generous.

Prompted by a reporter’s questions, they go on to recall their career in a series of vignettes: Their first gig, in 2001, an impromptu engagement at the University of Pennsylvania that brought together four guys who were largely strangers to each other; a concert at Stern College, where a mechitza of balloons separated the band from its all-female audience; or that time in Queens, after a particularly exciting show, when they had to be rushed out by security, a gaggle of excited fans in hot pursuit.

Reminiscing about that last incident, Hoffman, 24, a slim man with intense eyes and a quiet manner that commands attention, smiles.

“I remember driving on the highway, saying ‘what the hell just happened?’ ” he recalls. A moment of quiet, another smile, and a shrug. “As long as I know it’s about the music.”

His remark sparks a discussion of music as means versus music as an end.

“For [Rabbi Shlomo] Carlebach,” Rosenblatt notes, “the music was a means to bring people closer. For us, it’s about the music,” he says, though noting with satisfaction that rabbis, educators and young people have told them about the positive effect their music has had on fans.

Hoffman nods in agreement.

“We were never a kiruv [religious outreach] project,” he says. “We’re thinking personally and trying to write on a universal level. The music is going to convey a mood, color the way you hear the lyrics. Even if you don’t understand Hebrew, the lyrics will color your mood.”

As an example, the three discuss their song “Modim,” a buttery number with a guitar hook bouncing off a smooth horn section. Sung mostly in English, it has a refrain in Hebrew expressing thanks to God. Even if a listener doesn’t understand the words, they say, the drum roll leading to the refrain, the uplifting sax, the excited guitar riffs, all lead the listener to a sense of elation.

“The song was written because as a Jew you need to think about how God fits into your life,” Hoffman says. “ ‘Modim’ is about being thankful” even when things are not going well.

“I see it differently,” booms Danzig, 23, the bass player. At 6-foot-4, his presence reverberates even when he does not speak. When he does, which is not often, he is sharply eloquent.

“I see it differently,” he repeats. “I think it’s about being thankful for what is going well.”

Dealing With

Real Issues

Like “Modim,” several of the new album’s songs consist of original lyrics, mostly written by Rosenblatt, that weave in phrases from Jewish liturgy, all put to music that cannily captures their spirit.

Among the tracks are “Av Harachamim,” a brooding melody, not unlike most of Coldplay’s hits, combining two traditional prayers; “Lo Irah,” a riff on a famous Breslover slogan applied to the intifada; “Shir Hashirim,” a jazzy take on the Song of Songs, and “Hineni,” a haunting ballad about Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac.

There are also some lighter moments: “Shidduch Song,” for example, is a soulful R&B romp gently sending up the Orthodox community’s obsession with marriage at an early age. The song tells the story of a young man who attests to being “the only one in the whole entire Orthodox community my age, not engaged, or dating now.”

After a speedy shidduch process, Rosenblatt sweetly sings questions to the intended groom: “Did you book a hall? Not yet. Sheitel or fall? Don’t know what she’ll get. How long did it take? Three dates. Why the delay?”

It’s a humorous way of tackling a real issue in the Modern Orthodox world, much as was the band’s most famous song, “Flippin’ Out,” from its first album, which describes the phenomenon of young men turning “black hat” during their post-high school year of yeshiva study in Israel.

The new album, whose title is a reference to the multifaceted nature of the Torah, is complex both musically and textually. Whereas “My Awakening” displays spirited pop sensibilities, “70 Faces” is heavy with bluesy jams and roaming compositions, making for an album devoted to meditation — musical and spiritual.

“I feel proud that the themes are meaningful,” Rosenblatt says of the new album. “It’s not like the songs you hear on the radio about sex and drugs.”

Hoffman adds: “We express themes we care a lot about in ways we can appreciate. We try to take issues and make them real.”

Danzig, having the last word, sums it all up.

“I was always inspired by people who can bring the different facets of their lives together,” he says. “We all believe in religious Judaism, and we all believe in good music. Let’s put them together.”

Putting It Together

With summer gigs at Camp Ramah and Camp Moshava two days away, Blue Fringe is at a damp and cavernous rehearsal room in a mid-Manhattan studio polishing off old songs and learning new ones.

Zwillenberg, 23, a radiant young man with fair hair and a habit of getting lost in the music, is drumming up a sweeping beat. Without a word, Danzig lays down a base line, zippy and confident. They’re playing “Sissy Strut,” a jazz staple.

It takes a few moments, but finally everyone’s ready to begin, and the band plunges into a series of fits and starts, practicing bits of songs, rearranging others. When they are through tweaking their own music, they begin searching for a song to cover, a habit of theirs in most of their concerts. Previous choices have included Radiohead and the Beatles; now someone suggests “Beautiful,” Christina Aguilera’s pop anthem.

The song is playing on an iPod, and each band member responds in a different way. Zwillenberg, as if he was connected to that machine’s wiring, instantly picks up the song’s beat, at first listening to the playback as he drums along but quickly shutting himself off from everything but the beat, now entirely his own.

Staring into space, Danzig is doing trial-and-error: He tests one take, then tries another, and another still, until what he hears pleases him. Then he simply plucks on the thick, steely strings of his bass.

A few feet away, Hoffman faces his amplifier, his back to the band. He is focused — in his dedication he looks more like a Talmudic scholar than a rock guitarist. His approach to the music is similar: Hoffman doesn’t so much play as interpret, and then reinterpret, the text, deconstructing it and rebuilding it, immersed in thought even as his fingers fret furiously on his guitar.

In the front of the room, Rosenblatt is trying to decipher the song’s lyrics. He jots down as much as he can pick up, singing along to certain parts.

Despite the cacophony in the room, the musicians are serene. They each do their thing for a few moments, until it’s time for them to play together as a band.

When they do, it all comes together perfectly, as if each member’s meditation is somehow connected to a collective mind-set. Their version sounds nothing like the syrupy original: Now it’s a Blue Fringe song, ponderous and heartening. The lyrics, a motivational message about appearance and self-worth, now seem to discuss something more substantial, something metaphysical, something Jewish.