Category Archives: Music

Dreidel I’m Gon’ Play…

This year’s big Hanukkah release: “Songs in the Key of Hanukkah” – an eclectic anthology compiled by Erran Baron Cohen and featuring songs performed by Cohen, Idan Raichel, Jules Brookes, Yasmin Levy and Orthodox African-American rapper, Y-Love.

Cohen has been fairly visible promoting his disc. He was recently interviewed by Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition, where he had this to say:

I remember from my childhood, listening to Hanukkah songs at home and listening to these children singing slightly out of key and some wonky old piano player to make a terrible record. The idea was to create a new concept in Jewish holiday music, something that everybody would enjoy listening to.

Click above for a taste: Cohen and Y-Love (along with some other unidentified hasidic-looking folk) performing “Dreidel” on Conan O’Brien.

Enjoy Every Sandwich

So my son Jonah discovered the Warren Zevon tunes on my iPod and I’m kvelling to no end as he turns into a big fan. (I’m a lifelong Zevon-devotee; his 1981 concert in LA in 1981 remains for me an indelible musical memory). Jonah’s discovery has inspired me to go back and listen to the songs of the late, great WZ. In particular I’ve been appreciating his later stuff: the lesser known post “Werewolves of London” tunes that are at turns hilarious, morbid, touching and always so keenly intelligent.

I’m also listening more closely to his final album, “The Wind” – the project he worked on while he was dying from terminal lung cancer. When it first came out in 2003, just two weeks before he died, it was just to raw and painful for me to listen to at length. But returning to it now, I’m realizing what an amazing work it is – a kind of “musical living will” that touches on all of themes of his life’s work without ever being maudlin or over-sentimental. This is a artist who didn’t flinch from exploring his demons while he was alive and he was a true role model for how to make the most of one’s life down to the very end.

Check out the clip above, an excerpt from his astonishing appearance on the Letterman show several months before his death. Letterman (his longtime friend who featured Zevon countless times over the years) devoted the entire show to him and they talked at length. Even if you’re not a fan, I encourage you to watch. It’s truly an incredible TV moment: a dying musician speaking openly and honestly about his terminal illness on a late night talk show before performing some of his greatest songs in public for the final time. He couldn’t hit all the high notes, but it was still a muscial performance for the ages.

The End of an Empire is Messy at Best

Run, don’t walk to grab Randy Newman new collection of tunes “Harps and Angels” – a snarky bunch of songs about the state of the post-9/11 union. If RN was crotchety as a young man, boy, just check out the middle-aged version. These are nasty songs designed to keep you sane.

One quibble: the album version of his version of the brilliant “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” is inexplicably set to a goofy country-music orchestration that lightens it up way to much. I much prefer the simple, lacerating version he released on iTunes last year. (Check out his performance above).

The end of an empire is messy at best
This empire is ending, like all the rest
Like the Spanish Armada drifting on the sea
We’re drifting in the land of the brave and the home of the free
Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye…

Gonna Be a Long Walk Home…

Caught the Bruce Springsteen concert in Milwaukee Monday night. Now granted, as a fairly rabid fan who’s lost count of how many Bruce concerts I’ve attended, I will admit that I lack a certain objectivity on this particular subject, but even so this was one of the really, really good ones. Good lord, even as he is pushing sixty, the man is performing with a passion and intensity that is truly inspirational.

There was much to love about this concert – he busted out some rarities and even brought out legendary jazz bassist Richard Davis for a gorgeous “Meeting Across the River.” (If you are a fan too, check out the concert review and setlist here on Backstreets.com.) Though I always love the old Bruce standards, what I really reached me was the material from his latest album, “Magic” – a collection of great, danceable tunes that soberly address the perils of living in America during the Iraq War era.

At the concert, he introduced the title song thus, “Here’s to the end of eight years of bad magic tricks:”

I got a shiny saw blade
All I need’s a volunteer
I’ll cut you in half
While you’re smilin’ ear to ear
And the freedom that you sought
Driftin’ like a ghost amongst the trees
This is what will be, This is what will be

You don’t have to be a Bruce expert to observe that he’s has grown more courageous in his willingness to address critical political issues more directly through his music in recent years. Some of his songs have an even deeper resonance now than when they were first written. It’s remarkable, for instance, to hear the prophetic lyric of “Lonesome Day,” written in the wake of 9/11 and almost a year before the US invasion of Iraq:

Better ask questions before you shoot
Deceit and betrayal’s bitter fruit
It’s hard to swallow, come time to pay
That taste on your tongue don’t easily slip away

My personal favorite from the new album – and one that he and the band played with even greater intensity in concert than on the record – is “Long Walk Home.” This one definitely gets my vote for our new national anthem:

My father said “Son, we’re lucky in this town,
It’s a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps its arms around you,
Nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone”

“Your flag flyin’ over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone.
Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t”

It’s gonna be a long walk home
Hey pretty darling, don’t wait up for me
Gonna be a long walk home

As I was jumping around in an arena full of delirious middle aged fans, I realized how important Springsteen’s music has been to me over the years. His songs kept me sane during High School in the 70’s and wouldn’t you know it, they continue to do the same for me during the turbulent Bush years…

(Click above for a great clip of Bruce and Davis’ duet from the concert.)

One Rabbi’s Christmas Confession

6618a.jpgOK, I admit it: I love to listen to Christmas songs this time of year.

I’ll leave it to you to determine if that makes me a bad Jew or a worse rabbi, but what can I say? I’ve got a major weakness for the ol’ seasonal standards.

Now I’m not talking about Christmas carols or overtly religious hymns (nor do I mean X-mas novelty kitsch like “Barking Dog Jingle Bells” or “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.”) No, I’m really, truly a sucker for those aching, melancholy Christmas ballads.

I’m sure you know the ones – they actually come in various sub-genres. There are the “It’s Christmas and I’m Sad Because We’ve Broken Up” songs (i.e. “Christmas/Baby Please Come Home” or “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”) Then there are the “It’s Christmas and I’m Not Able To Make it Home” songs (i.e. “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” or “White Christmas”) and there’s the “This May Be the Last Christmas We Ever Spend Together” songs (i.e. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”)

Is it perverse or at all sacreligious for a rabbi to be confessing his love for songs such as these? I dunno, don’t you think there’s something of a Jewish quality to them? Maybe it’s their quasi-exilic yearning (not to mention the fact that most of them were written by Jews anyhow.)

So that’s my seasonal guilty pleasure confession. And lest you judge me too quickly here, just take the test yourself. Check out James Taylor’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” or “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” as sung by Sarah McLachlan. (Man, that last line gets me every time…)