From Lennon and Jagger to Bono and Shakira, America has never been reluctant to import its treasured rock stars. The road to the top is a little more crooked when you're the quartet in RockFour, a psychedelic rock band from Tel Aviv. But the band, already a gold-selling act in Israel, should take another step toward the dream of breakthrough success with an eight-night residency at the Knitting Factory to coincide with Chanukah.
In such turbulent political times, it is tempting for some to imagine an Israeli band coming to town with a powerful message for the holiday. But if RockFour comes bearing an agenda, it is decidedly more in tune with the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson than with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"We don't want to fight Israel's fight," said RockFour drummer Issar Tennenbaum. "We live it, and music is a different thing for us. We don't want it to become a gimmick. We want to bring out our uniqueness ... without riding on Israel's back."
Nonetheless, certain factions of the American press can't resist trying to force a square peg into a political round hole. As one example, when the band played the Roxy this past summer, a review in the Los Angeles Times made prominent mention of the Israeli flag draped on an amplifier, lending the concert a mood supposedly more CNN than MTV.
"Some people see the flag and right away they think politics," Tennenbaum said with a chuckle. "But it's really not there. We kept seeing all these English bands putting up their English flags; why can't we do it with ours? It's an honor that we're able to put up our Israeli flag in America just out of patriotism. In Israel, we can't do that."
The band is delighted to have received the holiday invitation from the Knitting Factory. An earlier gig there led to the band being signed by New York label Rainbow Quartz. Since then, the band has been steadily touring in an attempt to keep building its American fan base with its blend of classic (Byrds, Animals, Beach Boys) and modern (Blonde Redhead) influences. While Tennenbaum admits that Los Angeles and New York are the easiest cities to build support in, thanks to larger Israeli and Jewish populations, RockFour has also found other pockets of America that are very ready for its unique blend of rock 'n' roll past and present.
"It's strange -- we've played Indianapolis six times in the last four or five months," Tennenbaum said, adding that other Midwestern cities like Omaha, Neb., and Cleveland have also been especially receptive. A gig in Indianapolis was responsible for the band getting some backing from media hulk Clear Channel Communications, Inc., which is helping spread the word.
Back in Israel, meanwhile, RockFour routinely fills clubs of 400 or more. Its reputation and success at home, of course, helps tremendously as it tours the United States. "If there are 100 people at the Knitting Factory, probably 20 or 30 would be Israeli," Tennenbaum said. "They already know us in Israel, and American people come and see the show and see 20-30 people really go crazy about us and know some of the songs. That helps the atmosphere and crowd and builds up a natural tier for the band to start with."
The Chanukah shows this year could be a deciding factor in whether the band returns to Israel or stays in the United States to record its next album. While the band has certainly earned the rest, band members also seem to be itching to get into the studio and keep the momentum going. when the time comes to record, they're hoping to be working under the sponsorship of one of the industry's big players.
"In America, we don't want to see ourselves as an indie act," Tennenbaum said. "We feel we have a major label act on stage and that may justify getting signed by a major label. We've seen a lot of indie acts that are so much more extreme than us, but in Israel singing psychedelic music in English is 'indie.'"
While Tennenbaum said that RockFour will be sprinkling some of the new songs into the band's Chanukah set, he indicates that the group will probably not be playing any traditional Chanukah songs or, for that matter, their older songs in Hebrew. While religion or homeland politics would be a convenient (and timely) platform for attention, RockFour keeps its focus squarely on the great escape of rock 'n' roll.
RockFour plays at 10 p.m. from Nov. 29 to Dec. 6. at the Knitting Factory Alterknit Lounge, 7021 Hollywood Blvd. Suite 209, Hollywood. $7. For information, call (323) 463-0204
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