Nefesh Mountain opens its new album with a slow, nuanced duet between band founders and married couple Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg. The pair harmonize with seasoned perfection, Zasloff adds a jazz-inflected bluegrass solo on his acoustic guitar, other string instruments (fiddle, mandolin, upright bass) join the gentle jam. By now, Americana fans have come to expect this kind of magic from Nefesh Mountain.
But the lyrics bring a surprise. The tune is titled “Hanukkah’s Flame,” and it leads off “Live From Levon Helm Studios: A Hanukkah Holiday Concert.”
“There are people who are purists who want bluegrass to stay a certain way, or they want Jewish music to stay a certain way,” Lindberg said. “For me and Doni, as we prepare to put this art out there, it can be hard but we have to take this leap.”
People depend on traditions. And that can be a wonderful thing. But adhering to traditions doesn’t do a lot for art. Not that “Live From Levon Helm Studios: A Hanukkah Holiday Concert” is radical art — it’s homey, tender, soulful, and cozy like an evening by the fire. But it’s also novel: Few think of Hanukkah songs and bluegrass going together.
“There’s a huge amount of respect and care we have for the style of music, especially from Eric who is writing the music,” Zasloff said ahead of Nefesh Mountain’s Hanukkah-themed shows at Shalin Liu in Rockport on Saturday and Club Passim in Cambridge on Sunday. “We are not trying to dilute it. At the same time, we are trying to be respectful of Jewish traditions. We are trying to carefully do something with love and thoughtfulness and honesty.”
The love shows through — but so to the chops (there are some real barn burners on the album).
The album came out of a livestream the band filmed a year ago at the late Levon Helm’s venue in Woodstock, N.Y. With dozens upon dozens of dates canceled, the band wanted to do something special for its fans during the holiday season. Zasloff and Lindberg put together a livestream like no other, one that celebrated the Jewish holiday, fleet-fingered pickin’ and original songs mixed in with tunes by James Taylor, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie (Bonus points: All three Guthrie compositions are lesser-known Hanukkah songs).
“Woody Guthrie was married to a Jewish woman whose mother was a Yiddish poet, Aliza Greenblatt, and as far as I know, he was taken with the story of the underdog, the working class, and the Jewish stories and Hanukkah in particular,” Lindberg said. “We’re such fans of what Woody has done and tried to pay tribute to his sensibility on these very sweet songs, almost child-like in nature.”
The album closes with a work by one of the greatest Jewish poets: Bob Dylan. It’s a fitting song for the festival of lights.
“The chorus of ‘I Shall Be Released’ talks about ‘I see my light come shining,’” Zasloff said. “We thought it spoke to looking at Hanukkah and the holidays and getting to the other side of darkness.”
The rendering is stunning and spiritual.
Thankfully, the band realized it needed to bring more originals along for its seasonal tour so will be playing cuts from third LP “Songs for the Sparrows.” Released last summer, the sound and stories on the record connect to the Hanukkah material with works that dig into Zasloff and Lindberg’s own heritage, reflecting the modern and ancient Jewish experience.
For tickets and details, go to nefeshmountain.com.