Did Asaf Avidan Lose His Mojo in Caesarea?

On Saturday in Caesarea amphitheater, the Israeli singer-songwriter wanted to do something different. Instead, his performance was quite weak.

Asaf Avidan’s debut performance at Caesarea was not good. But more than not being good, it did not seize the Caesarea opportunity. A Caesarea-worthy performance is one that is tightly engineered so that the artist “conquers” the amphitheater and sweep the thousands of spectators gathered there off their feet. Most performances at Caesarea are worthy of the place and Avidan could have engineered one for himself. How do we know? Anyone who saw him at the Center for the Performing Arts in Tel Aviv back in 2010 knows.

The concert at the Center for the Performing Arts three and a half years ago was a milestone in Avidan’s meteoric career. Raised aloft by two gold albums in succession – an incredible achievement for an indie artist – that was the first time he appeared at a venue with thousands of seats. In the first three songs, which were quiet and acoustic, the performance flowed along on calm waters. By the fourth or fifth song, however, when Avidan’s band at the time, the Mojos, joined him on stage, all the dams burst. Scores - if not hundreds - of young people – swarmed to the area at the foot of the stage and occupied it, while the rest of the people in the packed auditorium sprang to their feet. That was one of the strongest rock and roll moments seen here in recent years – not because of the music itself, but rather because of the crush at the scene.

Avidan could have replicated this on Saturday. The occasion justified it. It was, after all, Caesarea. It seemed as though the audience filling the amphitheater also wanted that. Someone even shouted 20 minutes into the performance: “Asaf, get us on our feet!” But Avidan didn’t do it. He wanted a different performance, an alternative Caesarea. One can admire him for this, but the alternative he offered was quite weak. In fact, it wasn’t focused enough to be called an alternative.

Avidan’s decision not to engineer an ordinary Caesarea suits the spirit of his most recent album, “Different Pulses.” In this latest work, he abandoned the folk-rock-blues sound of his first albums so beloved by his audience, in favor of a more stylized and contemporary sound, where the keyboard replaces the guitar as the dominant instrument. This bold move bore fruit: Avidan’s audience has accepted this fundamental change in sound and approach, and the new album has grown his already considerable fan base. Caesarea is proof of this.

But what worked on the album didn’t work live in Caesarea. Avidan’s band did not sound good. The sound lacked personality, and the string quartet and wind quartet were no compensation. These additions have to fit onto a good base, and the base was flawed. Avidan relinquished the rocker force without providing a worthy substitute. First a song, followed by a song and then another song, with no momentum gathering, and no tension built. Who would have believed that I’d be nostalgic for the Mojos, who, in my opinion, were a mediocre band?

Avidan mumbled something about how, at the age of 33, he realizes that life isn’t a continuous process of soaring, rather a series of takeoffs and landings.

However, the performance never took off and it stayed on the ground the whole time. By the eighth or ninth song three young guys sitting in the front row were checking Facebook right under Avidan’s nose. The initial urge was to lament the rudeness of the young, but in this case at least they had a good reason: The music was boring. At the concert in the Center for the Performing Arts, there is no way this would have happened.

There were moments in the concert when it even seemed as though Avidan had some sort of inner objection to the Caesarea amphitheater. He spoke about his supposedly anomalous presence there too many times and he even briefly imitated Shlomo Artzi and Eyal Golan, the “natural” rulers of the amphitheater. But to what end? If he had decided to put on an anti-Caesarea type show in Caesarea, it might have had the force of a challenge. If he had decided to do a Caesarea-type performance by the book, he would have behaved in a predictable way, but he would have emerged as a winner. Instead, Avidan chose an unsuccessful middle way.

Then - finally - in the last stretch of the performance and the three encores, Avidan stopped trying to be alternative and stuck to what he knows best, first in an acoustic solo version and then in a sweeping electric-rocker version. The audience leapt to its feet. Many rushed to the space below the stage, and faces (most of them young) glowed with joy. The impression was that Avidan’s devoted audience loves him so much that it didn’t make a fuss when most of the performance was hesitant; that it allows its hero to experiment, to err and to rectify. Nice. This is the relationship that should exist between an artist and his audience. It will be interesting to know what conclusions Avidan draws in advance of his next performance at Caesarea, which is scheduled for September.

Asaf Avidan. Caesarea Amphitheater, June 22

Nir Keidar