Brian Blum
May 23, 2011
Brother John with Brian at the beach at Jacob's Ladder (photo: Debbie Zimelman)

When Yehudit and Menachem Vinegrad booked the Abrams Brothers to appear as the main act at this year’s Jacob’s Ladder festival, they probably thought they were treating the audience at Israel’s (and one of the world’s) pre-eminent folk shows to the Brothers’ down home bluegrass and country stylings. Instead, they got Coldplay…with a fiddle.

This was the Abrams Brothers third time playing Jacob’s Ladder (they first appeared in 2007), and they have been consistent crowd pleasers, inspiring many of the more than 3,000 attendees to jump to their feet and boogy big time.

The Brothers (actually two brothers and their cousin, all under the age of 21) are devout Christians who say this is “their favorite folk festival” – both for the religious location at Kibbutz Nof Ginosar on the Sea of Galilee, and for the laid back vibe that brother John Abrams told me, when I met up with him on the beach collecting sea shells from the Holy Land, gives the event a “feeling of family.”

But the Abrams Brothers who took to the stage this year were barely recognizable from their debut here four years ago. Gone was the banjo player from the Grand Ole Opry. So too was their dad who provided a link to the multiple generations of bluegrass picking that runs in the family.

Instead, the Brothers have transformed themselves into a tight trio of pop rockers in the spirit of the Jonas Brothers or even –and this is hard to say in the same breath as “I really liked them” – Justin Bieber. Their new album, entitled Northern Redemption, was released for the first time at Jacob’s Ladder and was produced by Chris Brown who also produced fellow-Canadians The Barenaked Ladies.

The new Abrams Brothers tunes don’t abandon their roots entirely – brother James fiddles his way through nearly every song. But the emphasis on cousin Eli’s electric guitar and the way James leaps in the air and lands in a stadium rocker leg split are a far cry the wholesome family band that’s performed together for more than ten years, since James was only eight. Their latest video now playing on YouTube even features the trio pining for a sexy mermaid in a bikini.

I asked John what prompted the change. “We have a wide variety of music playing on our iPods,” he told me at the beach, “and we wanted to express that as well.” Indeed, the band has come into their own as they’ve gotten older, he added, and the family has been completely supportive of their new direction.

The “new” Abrams Brothers also have more of a shot of achieving teen stardom as rockers with country roots (just look at Taylor Swift). Their music has the pop sensibilities of early 1970s Eagles or Pure Prairie League (remember “Amie?”)

My own survey at the show was mixed. Many of my friends said they missed the bluegrass and were politely dismissive of the band’s transformation. I thought they were fantastic, as did the younger festival-goers who danced up a storm, but I’ve never been a particular fan of Nashville plucking.

The Abrams Brothers dropped numerous hints saying they wouldn’t mind being invited back next year. I hope Yehudit and Menachem got the message and that pop isn’t anathema to a folk music festival.

The Brothers’ love of Israel, professed repeatedly on stage, should be enough to sustain their continued participation. For their closing number, they chose a country-fied version of Coldplay’s Vida la Vida, with its religious chorus that starts “I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing, Roman Cavalry choirs are singing…” As one of my friends told me afterward, “Yes, I prefer the bluegrass, but I just can’t get that song out of my head.”

You can see it above and on YouTube and, with any luck, next year on the main stage at Jacob’s Ladder.

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