It's a good time for the blues in Tel Aviv these days, what with all the talk about the economic crisis and a possible impending war. Robert Belfour, the 71-year-old American blues singer who landed here on Thursday for a single show at the Barby, certainly delivered the goods.
Belfour, perhaps the last scion of the glorious blues tradition of the American South, was marketed here as the real deal - and with excellent reason. Yamit Hagar, a blues fan who fell in love with Belfour's songs thanks to the frequent airing of his music on Eran Sabag's Army Radio show, not only succeeded in bringing this impressive elderly master to Tel Aviv from the other side of the globe, but also managed to fill the club to full capacity.
When Belfour ascended to the stage, aided by a cane, beautifully dressed in a three-piece suit, tie and hat, he was met with thunderous applause. "I didn't believe it would happen, but I'm finally here," he said in his heavy southern accent. "I never dreamt it, but here I am."
Sabag, who introduced the evening with a certain amount of excitement, spoke about the pioneering spirit of the Tel Aviv performance, and as is his wont stressed the authenticity of the blues in general and that of Belfour in particular. Belfour is indeed seen as the representative of a very particular school: the blues of North Mississippi hill country. It's a poverty-stricken area of farming communities, relatively far from the big cities, and the artists who hailed from there developed a unique local style: a strong, aggressive guitar, whose sound borders on chaos, concentrating on a single chord and, at most, connected to an amp - music that could equally be played on one's front porch or at a weekend party at the local juke joint.
The cognoscenti distinguish this style from the better-known, also essentially acoustic, Mississippi Delta blues, originating west of Belfour's hill country, and of course between both of these and their younger sibling - the urban, electric Chicago blues, a style that developed as millions of African-Americans streamed north after World War II. The purists will tell you, with a great deal of pedantry, why the blues from the hill country is superior to all the other styles, but Belfour, who came alone to the Tel Aviv performance, just him and his guitar, obliterated these distinctions. (I would have said he crushed them into the dirt, but he never got up from his chair ).
His performance featured not only on songs from his own records; he also incorporated covers of other blues classics. While Belfour's basic style is akin to that of other artists from the region where he was born - such as Mississippi Fred McDowell and especially Junior Kimbrough (look for his 1997 standout album "Most Things Haven't Worked Out" ) - most of the classics he performed belonged to artists of the Delta genre who became famous when they moved north and electrified their sound in the 1940s and 1950s - Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker. It's as if Belfour was saying: All of this doesn't matter. The blues is the same blues and who cares where exactly it comes from? Belfour learned from Fred McDowell and from the records of Muddy Waters, who drew his inspiration from Robert Johnson, who in any case learned how to play from none other than Satan himself (in a diabolical pact to sell his soul in return for his mastery of the guitar ).
Belfour gave the crowd two unforgettable hours - part master class, part primeval voodoo - without any filters to soften the impact. The music, which perhaps at first sounded a little monotonous, slowly became hypnotic and entrancing. When he spoke with the audience between songs, it was difficult to penetrate the heavy accent, but from the mouth of this polite southern gentleman even a cliche like "If you don't know where you come from, you can't know where you're going" suddenly sounded wonderfully true.
Outside, on that sweaty Tel Aviv evening, a line from the beautiful (and all too brief ) opening act by Israeli blues man Itay Pearl continued to reverberate: "I'm going down south, look for me when the bomb drops."
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