Tel Aviv — After more than a decade living here,
I’ve long ceased being a tourist in this city. But after nearly five years of fatherhood, I might as well be one as far as Tel Aviv nightlife is concerned.
Bars have opened and bands have matured all just a few steps away from my central Tel Aviv flat. A tiny but fruitful funk scene has sprung up. I hear there’s also an ample selection of indie rock. Meanwhile, I can’t remember the last movie I saw or the last band I saw live in a bar.
And so, in effort to re-examine Tel Aviv with the fresh eyes of a newcomer (and as an excuse to sample some nightlife), I decided to get some recommendations from local musicians about the venues they like, and then go sample them. What follows can also be a primer for young (and young-at-heart tourists) interested in the music scene here.
So without further ado, I’m off into the night…
OzenBar, King George 48
“It’s the coolest place ever.” That’s how music producer and composer (and my upstairs neighbor) Uri Kalian described OzenBar, an intimate music club facing the Dizengoff Center shopping mall across King George Street (just a few paces away from our building). The bar is tucked away in an upstairs annex of Ozen Hashlishit (the Third Ear), a record and video rental shop that is a Tel Aviv music institution. Ozen’s roster of acts range ranges from alternative rock to Hebrew reggae to and folk acts — all of which are supposed to be palatable for the mainstream ear.
“They are very strict about bringing good stuff that needs exposure. You won’t see a crappy show there,” he said.
There was also praise for the acoustics: bar speakers that give those nursing a drink the feeling they’re in front of the stage yet not dialed up so loud as to leave ears ringing at the end of a show. He forgot to mention that the bar has a flat screen TV above the stage because there’s no direct line of sight from most of the club’s seats.
I showed up on a Wednesday night for Shablulim, a tribute band devoted to Israeli rock from the early ’70s. The name of the band comes from the seminal Israeli rock album “Shablul,” a collaborative effort by Arik Einshtein and Shalom Hanoch, who localized the psychodelia of the ’60s British invasion.
But instead of a band of graying alte-rockers, the musicians looked as if they could have been born a decade after the heyday of the material they were paying homage to. The same could be said for the crowd — which enthusiastically imbibed nostalgia along with alcohol. For the tourist, seeing Shablulim is a chance to sample faithful renditions of Israeli classic rock, even if the tongue-in-cheek versions might be lost on foreigners.
If OzenBar plays to the mainstream, the basement of this hip bar in the up-and-coming Gan Ha’Hashmal boutique district specializes in avant-garde and experimental music. In terms of the musical lineup, it’s the Tel Aviv equivalent of New York’s Knitting Factory.
“If you’re a musician, you know that if you go on stage, you have to do something that’s never been done before,” said Kalian.
The patrons at the bar look like Israeli bohemians from central casting, with a decidedly retro clothes vibe. The bar on the entry level was once named by Time Out Tel Aviv as one of the best music bars in the city, and the music is a good mix of edgy alternative rock. (The Dutch wheat beer hit the spot.)
The music is in a dark and spooky basement that is set up for standing room and a little seating on some stools near a small basement bar. It seems an appropriate setting for experimental, alternative rock.
But luck was not with me at Levontin 7. The band, Orchestra, was a free jazz outfit that stayed true to a genre that I sort of get, but have never really enjoyed. The leader, Rea Mochiah, is a drummer who has played with a string of Israeli rock luminaries. But none of that mattered, as the music was too “out” for my tastes. The best parts of the show were the ironic titles of the tunes, such as “Don’t Look for It.” But the guitar solo, titled “Blues,” which actually stuck to the blues format, didn’t do it for me. Maybe I was in over my head musically. Despite my disappointment, Levontin 7 is still worth checking out if you’re interested in seeing Israeli artists push the limits.
This address came from Eyal Rob, a member of the funk reggae DJ outfit Soulico. The bar has actually been open since the fall of 2009, and it represents an expansion by Tel Aviv’s serial restaurateurs Mati and Ruthi Bourdo.
Rob described Rothschild 12 as “rather trendy; it allows musicians to do their own thing for, like, 20 minutes. It’s a cool spot, kind of stylish and unexpected, as you can see top Israeli artists and underground rock bands on the same night.”
The bar is located in the heart of Tel Aviv’s original Ahuzat Bayit neighborhood, which by day is Israel’s financial district, and by night is the heart of the city’s nightlife.
Turns out Rob also DJs there as well. Trendy was an understatement. On a Monday night visit, the place filled up quickly with buff guys wearing tight fitting dress shirts and women with high maintenance hairdos and accessories. The waitresses nudged through a sea of patrons. Anchoring yourself to a seat is a must if you don’t want to be constantly bobbing in the throng of the crowd.
The gimmick of Rothschild 12 is that the performances aren’t advertised. Many of the performances are works in progress. Also, there’s no music charge. Rob gave me advance notice that Karolina, one of Israel’s most popular young divas, would be performing alongside Sabo, a colleague of his from Soulico. Karolina, who opened for Erika Badu when she came to Tel Aviv in 2008, runs the gamut musically, from reggae to hip hop to singer-songwriter folk as part of the female trio Habanot Nechama.
Before the show, Karolina told me that the show would be reggae-based “sound system” filtered through the samples and rhythms contained in Sabo’s mixer.
What exactly is the attraction of playing a small bar where people get in for free, I asked Karolina? “It’s been a long time since I’ve played such a small and happy place. I’m excited,” she said. “You are accessible to the crowd, and I’m playing for my friends.”
Karolina finally went on at midnight, and the reggae sound system show (with a dash of jazz trumpet) was enjoyable and grooving. Her tunes are easily accessible. With musical muses Sabo and Kutiman backing her on the small stage, Karolina stretched out into a 45-minute treat of contemporary Israeli funk-influenced pop.
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