The Best Band in America Makes Its Best Album
This review will be relatively short, as I have run out of synonyms for “amazing”.
I am already on record as saying that the Klezmatics are the best band in America, and this album just cements that opinion in my mind. If they even register on anyone’s radar screen, it’s usually along the lines of “Oh, that klezmer group, they played at Charlotte’s wedding on Sex and the City, sure, but it’s a novelty group, isn’t it?” Uh, NO. As wonderful albums like Rhythm and Jews have demonstrated, no other group in the land has the kind of reach, breadth, depth, and pinpoint precision that they bring to the table. They’re not often the flashiest, nor perhaps the most exciting—but they are the best, and this is not negotiable.
The German world-music label Piranha is not the K’s usual label; this is a recording of a 2004 show in Berlin. I’m actually shocked that they have never made a live album before, and that it took a special occasion concert like this one to make that happen. The “special occasion” part is that this show features “freedom songs” from the Jewish and Christian musical traditions—but the really important thing about the show is that it featured two hugely important special guests. These guests are so talented and amazing that they need their own explanatory paragraph.
Joshua Nelson is a Jewish African-American singer who has been featured in the documentary Keep on Walking. His voice is indescribable without the adjective “huge”; he manages to channel classic soul and blues singers as well as his idol, Mahalia Jackson. The other guest, who appears on just one track, is jazz singer/pianist Kathryn Farmer, whose birth mother was Jewish but who was adopted into an African-American family as a child. This kind of cultural cross-connection is the soul of this project, but Nelson is the big revelation here. He has a gospel voice but full command of the Jewish music repertoire. There might not be a more exciting singer in the world.
Which is not to say that Farmer, or Klezmatics lead singer Lorin Sklamberg, are slouches. The latter’s soaring tenor is still as ethereal as it’s ever been, a weapon to be employed against all manner of stupidity and demonry, and the latter’s rendition of “Go Down Moses” makes me want to seek out everything she’s ever done and purchase it and memorize it. But the way Joshua Nelson wades into the middle of “Elijah Rock” and blows it apart, fat tones full of soul and sorrow and exultation, and the massive vamping on “Walk in Jerusalem” and “Didn’t It Rain”... I’m telling you, it’s not really anything that can be explained. If you don’t find a way to experience this, then you will be a poorer person.
And the Klezmatics simply cannot be faulted as a band. Paul Morrissett and David Licht are an undeniable rhythm section; Frank London pulls off some stunning trumpet work, just like he always does (remember the trumpet solo in L.L.‘s “Goin’ Back to Cali”? that’s the guy); one Matt Darriau clarinet run almost pulls a whole “walls of Jericho”; and violinist Lisa Gutkin seems a little more integrated into the rest of the band now, although she really hasn’t banished the spectre of Alicia Svigals. And not enough nice things could be said about Lorin Sklamberg, one of the purest singers I’ve ever heard. He soars on “Ki Loy Nue,” he owns “Ale Brider”, and he pleads and testifies on the slow-burner “Shnirele, Perele”, setting the table perfectly for Nelson’s big fat entrance. Then the two of them, as the band goes into ambient free-fall, start trading lines in Hebrew, and burn the damn house down.
There are no longer any boundaries of any kind. The world is changed, somehow. If you have any soul at all, you will weep.