Jacob’s Ladder is my favorite weekend of the year. Located at the picturesque Kibbutz Nof Ginosar, on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, the festival is billed as “a unique bluegrass, folk, country, blues, Irish and world music extravaganza.” It is in equal parts a chance to catch up with old friends in a laid back atmosphere that encourages camping and potlucks, and an opportunity to hear music by both world class performers and emerging bands who may just be the next big thing.
Jacob’s Ladder began as an “Anglo Festival,” started by Menachem and Yehudit Vinegrad who made aliyah in 1967 and missed the folk scene from back home. The festival has evolved considerably, growing from 700 attendees at the first gathering to well over 3,000 today.
The demographics have grown too. The once Anglo majority has been displaced by Israelis – I heard far more Hebrew than English – including a large contingent of teenagers and twenty-somethings (many the children and even grandchildren of Anglos) who grew up at Jacob’s Ladder over the years.
I may be reading into it, but the younger population also seems to have influenced the music – high energy rock and roll and world music is much more prevalent than in years past; even the Irish/Scottish Bodhran Band rocks out…with bagpipes. The presence of Shmemel, an Israeli ensemble combining wailing electric guitars, a full brass section (saxophone, trombone and trumpet – think Blood Sweat and Tears or early Chicago) with rap, funk and the occasional klezmer, had the outdoor dance floor packed.
All that is good news for me: I love the festival but have never been a big bluegrass or country music fan. So my personal music discoveries included a number of unsung indie rockers who I’d like to see gain more exposure.
My top pick: a singer-songwriting duo who go by the simple name of Jenny & Gilad. write their own music in English and Hebrew and perform with lovely harmonies. The overflow audience went wild like hardcore fans, especially impressive given that the two don’t even have a CD out (“we’re working on it,” they pleaded).
Also on my list of show favorites were Omri Vitis – an Israeli with a voice reminiscent of Gordon Lightfoot who has spent the last 12 years in the U.K. and belts out folk-tinged rock influenced by Native American tribal beats; the bespectacled Erez Singer whose happy clappy upbeat pop songs sound like another Israeli who croons in English, Shy Nobleman; and The Love Birds whose lead singer Efrat Kolberg occasionally channels the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde.
Here’s a clip of Erez Singer:
Another element to the evolution of Jacob’s Ladder is the number of religious people who spend Shabbat listening to electrified music. A minyan set up overlooking the water was attended by more than 50 people. You could hear the sounds of the Friday evening kiddush being said all over the campgrounds.
Pulling off a festival of this size and complexity takes the full time attention of the Vinegrads – I’ve written about the “business” of Jacob’s Ladder previously – but it pays off and attendees respond in kind: you can leave your chairs and blankets on the main lawn and no one will steal them, smoking is now prohibited at the concerts; and after the show, everyone pitches in to clean up, leaving the kibbutz nearly as clean as it was beforehand.
But maybe the best part: after the final performance Saturday afternoon, our friends have a tradition – we all head to the beach, pull our plastic chairs into the shallow part of the lake, and dip our toes as the coolness water mitigates a hot and sometimes muggy day.
I can’t wait until next year.