As the home of Berklee College of Music, the Boston and New England Conservatories, and such legendary venues as Scullers, Club Passim, and Shalin Liu Performance Center, the Greater Boston area has long been a hotbed for music.
On Nov. 27 and 28, Nefesh Mountain, the five-piece acoustic band that blends bluegrass with Jewish spirituality, will be performing at Shalin Liu in Rockport and at Cambridge’s Club Passim in a pair of shows that were organized in part by members of Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester.
Hailed as one of today’s boundary-pushing bluegrass bands, Nefesh Mountain’s husband-and-wife founders Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg (along with fiddle player Alan Grubner, David Goldenberg on mandolin, and Sam Weber on bass) combine the progressive sounds of Americana with the ancient sounds of their Jewish heritage.
“Our story with Nefesh Mountain and the way it began is very much a love story between the two of us and over the years our shared mutual love of both American music and Jewish culture led to the music that we make with Nefesh Mountain,” said Lindberg, who like Zasloff is a native New Yorker.
Both Lindberg and Zasloff recall such musical mixes being common in their childhood homes.
“We both grew up in homes that shared similar influences for sure,” Zasloff recalled, “and it wouldn’t be uncommon to walk into the kitchen and hear Paul Simon, Bob Dylan … Doc Watson, Flatt and Scruggs [and] the Carter Family.”
“Our own music draws influence … from all of these folks,” Lindberg explained, “but we also feel a strong connection to different European musical forms, from the songs and melodies of our ancestors in Eastern Europe to the Scots-Irish and Scandinavian traditions as well.”
It is Nefesh Mountain’s ability to combine all these traditions that has helped expand its circle of fans. What may still be the most important fan base, however, is the one from shul.
“I think as Jewish Americans, we sometimes tend to think of our Jewish lives separately from our secular ones,” Zasloff said. And while he admits that he and his wife may not have set out to do this, Zasloff added that “one of the great silver linings for us with our band is that we get to live in both of these worlds at the same time.”
On their latest recording, “Songs For The Sparrows,” Lindberg and Zasloff took inspiration from a Jewish journey they recently took during which they explored their own heritage and family history during a trip to Eastern Europe. In the process, they found out more not only about the triumphs of their ancestors, but also about the antisemitism and hate that has followed the Jewish people throughout history.
“We tracked down the towns where our families are from,” Zasloff recalled, “and it was devastating to see the destruction of the Holocaust firsthand and to know that we’re not so far removed from that time.”
Just after returning from their European exploration, the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh inspired the duo to pen another painfully timely song – “Tree Of Life” – which is both a prayer and anthem to respect and honor those who were killed and all those in the Jewish community who were affected.
“There was nothing else that we could do in that moment but sing,” Zasloff said, recalling how he and Lindberg wrote the song in just one day, “and we wanted to offer something, anything that might help.”
When asked how Temple Ahavat Achim became involved with these shows, Karen Herlitz, Shalin-Liu’s marketing director, explained that after the Rockport performance center asked Nefesh Mountain to create a special Hanukkah concert, she reached out to Ruth Budelman at Ahavat Achim – with whom she had worked on a film presentation about Anne Frank – to see if the Gloucester temple might want to partner again.
“Since we had worked so well together on such projects before,” Herlitz said, “the partnership was approved.”
When asked what people can expect at the shows, Lindberg said while some of the material may be a bit “dark,” Nefesh Mountain is, at its core, “a high-energy bluegrass ensemble” that always shows up ready to pick their way through a fun and far-reaching performance.
“Our music is a reaction to some of these things that we see out there in the world,” she said, “but we always approach it with hope, sincerity, love, and also the excitement that is bluegrass music. A great bluegrass song is like lightning in a bottle, and our show is truly a celebration of American music infused with some of our cultural and spiritual traditions as Jews as well.”