April 14, 2024
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Lagstock and Barrel: The Concert Review

Now that Lag B’Omer is here, the attention of the New Jersey Jewish music scene turns toward spring and summer concerts. And in the realm of N.J. Jewish concerts, none is bigger than the Lagstock Festival, held every year on the thirty-third day of the Omer. It was the brainchild of Yisroel Jacobowitz (known by his stage name of Izzy Jewish) from the band Electric Shlomo.

Izzy started his band in 1992 after spending a deeply meaningful, life altering shabbat with Shlomo Carlebach. He was so overwhelmed with Reb Shlomo’s spirituality he quit his job in the Jersey City school system and went into playing Jewish music full time. Three years after he created Electric Shlomo, he started the Lagstock Festival, in 1999, and it has grown in popularity each year.

Lagstock is a mecca for New Jersey’s Jewish garage bands, and many well-known groups first got their start at the festival. Yami Salami was featured at the festival in 2008, and the Jewish oldies band Geniza played to wide acclaim here in 2009.

This year the concert featured a few well known acts and some upstarts. Lagstock 2014 was held at Van Saun Park in Paramus, and the crowd was loud and raucous.

This year’s festival opened with an electric guitar version of Hatikvah a la Jimmy Hendrix, played by Shmiel Levinson of the Flaming Eternals. It was rebellious yet respectful, and set the tone for the whole afternoon.

The MC for the event was Menachem Kronen, from the WFDU radio program, The Jewish Vibe. He came out wearing his traditional Lagstock large wooden barrel to introduce the musical acts (Lagstock and barrel, get it?) and to wax philosophic about whatever he was thinking at that moment.

The first set was played by the Rambombers who sizzled with new bass player Shamai Hirsch replacing Ra’am Siegal, who made aliyah to Beit Shemesh last summer. They played Meyafar Koomi and the El Al Blues from their new CD, Hallelooloo.

Next was the rapper, Mordechai, who was a real crowd pleaser. He performed Hu Yiftach Libeinu, and Def Jam Jeremiah, before closing with a killer rap version of Mordechai Ben David’s Someday We Will All Be Together (Uh huh, uh huh, Avraham and Yitzchak will be there to greet us, Y’all/ Yaakov and his sons BABOOM CHICKA CHICKA BABOOM will stand by and smile/ OW!)

A new Klezmer band out of Elizabeth, Klezmahal, played a few tunes, followed by Cantor Weiss of Temple Shalom in Closter performing a medley from Fiddler on the Roof. The crowd was respectful, though many took the opportunity to visit the concession stands.

Next was this amazing new group out of Lakewood called Shtark. Their fare was relatively traditional wedding band tunes, but band member Bini Cohen sizzled on the electric fiddle, and lead singer Rashi “the Reish Galuta” Rabinowitz has a beautiful voice. The only unusual moment was when they played Ki Lo Yitosh to the tune of Jon Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer. That was certainly unexpected. But barring unforeseen circumstances, Shtark should be solidly booked through the entire bar mitzvah/wedding season.

Finally, it was time for the lead act. Electric Shlomo took the stage, and the crowd went wild. Izzy and the boys (Yonie “Bashert” Simonoff on the drums, Levi “LaBamba” Schwartz on the bass guitar, Yehuda “Yamaha” Leibowitz on the keyboard, and Izzy “Jewish” Jacobowitz on vocals and lead guitar) opened with Manna from Heaven, one of their signature tunes. They broke into a Shlomo Carlebach medley, and then Izzy went into one of his twenty minute guitar solos, and the audience settled down to enjoy the mellow vibe he was generating.

Electric Shlomo had a different feel from the festival last year. They used to sport a clean-cut look, but at this year’s Lagstock it seemed like none of them had cut their hair in months, perhaps since last Lag B’Omer, and they all had pony tails (even Yehuda, who didn’t have much hair left up front). It was like the difference between the early and late Beatles, lehavdil. On Izzy, the look was flattering– kind of a rock star thing– but on the rest of them, not so much.

After they closed the Carlebach medley with a bittersweet version of Od Yishamah, Izzy took the microphone to address the audience.

“Hey everybody. We’re so glad you could come to our Lag B’Omer party.”

Loud applause.

“Is anybody here from Jersey?”

Louder applause.

“I thought so. Do you know what? We’re from Jersey, too.”

Polite laughter.

“But seriously. We’re glad you could join us today. We’re here to celebrate Lag B’Omer in a spiritual way. Thanks for not bringing the bows and arrows, by the way. I know that was a problem for the park rangers last year.

“Now, I know it’s not Meiron here in Paramus. It’s not like we’re at the tomb of Rav Shimon bar Yochai, but I still want to give you some of that Lag B’Omer feeling. It’s a spiritual day, here. If there are any kabbalists out there in the audience, that’s cool. Rock on, you Israelite mystics.

“We here in the band, in case you haven’t noticed, have been looking kind of ornery lately. The fact is, we haven’t cut our hair in, oh, about nine months. And that’s because today, we’re having our upsherin.”

Izzy paused to allow the crowd to mumble.

“A lot of Jewish parents wait to cut their sons’ hair until they’re three years old. It has something to do with how we’re all like trees and shouldn’t be trimmed the first three years of our growth, like orlah with a tree. Then at three years old we cut our boys’ hair, and they’re ready to start doing mitzvot, like wearing tzitzit, or saying berachot.

“The custom in many families is to cut the boy’s hair on Lag B’Omer. Some even bring their boys to Mount Meiron to trim them at the tomb of the great scholar, Rav Shimon bar Yochai, whom tradition dictates died today.”

Someone in the audience let out a loud scream, “Yeah, Shimon bar Yochai!” like he was a local celebrity, but no one else picked up the cheer, and it faded away. “So today, to celebrate this tradition, me and the boys are going to get our hair cut. We’re gonna shave it all off. And our locks will be donated to make wigs for cancer patients who lost their hair.”

A big round of applause rose up from the audience. “Thanks. Thanks a lot. And to make it official, Levi LaBamba here has brought his son to the concert. He’s three, and he’s going to have his real upsherin right here, today.”

Levi pointed to his wife in the audience, and Sharona Schwartz lifted their son, Matityahu, up over her head. Now the crowd really went wild. She had to discourage them from passing Matityahu over their heads up to the stage. It was then that Electric Shlomo broke into their finale, a big, brash version of Amar Rebbe Akiva.

After the concert, all the members of Electric Shlomo got their hair cut in the park, courtesy of Chubby’s Barbershop of Teaneck. Izzy’s long, blonde locks went to the Angels for Wigs organization, but the rest of the band had mangy, frizzy hair, not of much use to anyone. Al the barber politely put their cut hair aside, to be disposed of later, when none of the band members were watching.

Matityahu Schwartz had his upsherin with 1500 of his closest friends. He put on his first pair of tzitzit– decorated with Thomas the Tank Engine– up on the stage. As an encore, Electric Shlomo called up all the performers from the festival and played a reggae version of Mitzvah Gedola Lihiyot Besimcha Tamid, it is a big mitzvah to always be happy. They segued into Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy, and as the sun set over New Jersey, everyone went their merry, mystical way.

By Larry Stiefel

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