March 2, 2006
Israeli Superstars Rock the Diaspora
Lo Ozev At Hair Avur Af Echad Anachnu Shnayim Tamid, Beneynu
("I won't leave the city/not for anyone/we are two, always/between us, one God.")
-- Shlomo Artzi and Shalom Chanoch, "Live at Caesaria"
Don't believe everything you hear. Two of Israel's greatest rockers -- Shlomo Artzi and Shalom Chanoch -- are leaving Israel, albeit briefly, pairing up for a joint three-concert tour to promote their new album, "Live at Caesaria," in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, homes to Israel's largest expat communities.
Although Israeli stars have toured America for years -- consider Idan Reichl's recent popularity at the Kodak Theatre -- this tour will be the Israeli equivalent of say, Billy Joel and Elton John touring together. These two Israeli mega-singer/songwriters have produced hundreds of pop songs over more than four decades, and they continue to sell out concerts despite their advancing ages -- both are nearing 60.
But unlike Joel and John, who are increasingly relegated to "soft rock" and appeal primarily to their original Gen-X and Baby Boomer fans, the Israeli rockers still enthrall their original fans from the 1960s and 1970s, even as they have captured the hearts of later generations. (This is particularly true of the blue-eyed, dimpled Artzi, who still draws a bevy of screaming, belly-shirted young things rushing the stage at his concerts.)
Part of the pair's cross-generational appeal is, of course, due to the fact that Israel is a small country, without much room for niche markets: Rock is rock. (Not like America, with its hundreds of Grammy categories). But it's also because the two men, in a way, are Israeli rock. No, they are Israel: Chanoch was born in 1946, and Artzi was born in 1948.
Chanoch jumped to fame when he teamed up with that other great Israeli star, Arik Einstein, in 1967. In the 1970s Chanoch became a star in his own right, but for the next years continued to write songs performed by other Israeli artists.
Artzi got his start in the army band and in 1975 was chosen to represent Israel at Eurovision. He lost the competition, and soon after recorded "He Lost His Way," which was meant as a last hurrah, but instead reignited his career.
Each of the artists' songs have flooded the radio waves for nearly five decades, a soundtrack, of sorts, to Israel's many wars, casualties, celebrations, assassinations, and shifting moods -- from hopeful to cynical and hopeful again.
"There has not ever been another man/like that man," Artzi sang on the tribute album made following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, a song that became a mantra for the mourning peace camp.
In 1985 Chanoch came out with his humorous "Mashiach Lo Bah" -- which became a pop sensation and later entered the lexicon, with its typically Israeli cynical chorus: "The Messiah isn't coming -- and he isn't phoning, either."
Neither artist's lyrics seem particularly religious: (Consider Artzi's song, "Here and There": "Here and there the Messiah's plane flits about/when will it land near us on the shore? She says: He who believes in lies will be disappointed.") But their ironic faith reflects the tone of much Israeli culture. Many of their songs are about love, about friendship, about wars, and always with a little politics thrown in.
Last summer, Artzi and Chanoch performed together in the amphitheater in Caesaria, in Northern Israel. There, Chanoch played one of Artzi's most popular songs. "Suddenly when you didn't come/I felt like this." Artzi later said it was best performance ever of the song. In turn, Artzi sang one of Chanoch's songs, and a joint performance was born. After 42 performances in Israel, the duo comes to America (New York's Beacon Theater on March 5; Miami on March 8; and Los Angeles' Kodak Theatre on March 11).
One problem with tribute albums, where artists sing another artist's song, is that a fan has to be able to let go of the original version to appreciate strangers singing the familiar song. (Does one really want to hear Kate Bush singing "Rocket Man," on the Elton John tribute album "Two Rooms"?)
It can be disconcerting to hear the two singing each other's top hits on the album.
And yet, after five decades on the Israeli scene, their songs have become such a fabric of Israeli society, their fans overlapping, their voices sounding increasingly similar as age takes its toll (let's not forget the smoking) that it seems somehow only fitting for Israel's two great icons to merge their playlists.
And besides, in concert, they're singing all the songs together.
Like this one, written by Chanoch, performed first by Einstein.
Kama Tov Shebata Habayta/Kama Tov Li'rot Otcha Shuv ...
"How good it is that you've come home/How good it is to see you...."
The March 11 concert at the Kodak Theatre starts at 8:30 p.m. $47-$147. 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. For tickets, call (213) 480-3232.