Freedom Songs

Whatever you think happened in Jenin—there is no consensus at press time, nor will there ever be—you can’t argue that “occupation” is now an understatement. So a benefit to end the West Bank occupation, planned last fall and finally arrived at the Knitting Factory on April 21, was both overdue and overdetermined.

It was a brave evening, especially for those artists over whom the ghost of Meir Kahane hovers like a wrathful god. Make no mistake: This is a tough time to be a Jew, faced with a choice between Zionism and humanism. Suicide bombing has tarnished the hopes behind any two-state plan. (To paraphrase vogue philosopher Karl Popper, you can never prove that you are secure, but a single bombing can prove you are not.) Even our president seems to wonder whether he can afford to back the Israeli powder keg unequivocally. Galvanized by anti-Semitic incidents across Europe, some Jews resort to the nationalist’s creed—my Israel right or wrong—but when your most ardent advocates are motherfuckers on the order of Gary Bauer and Rush Limbaugh, you must suspect you’re beat.

Of course, it is a much harder time to be a Palestinian, which was why we showed up on Sunday. With your soul searched, your pockets and crotch came next (the Knitting Factory’s second-ever pat-down). The take went to three peace and human-rights organizations—one Israeli, one Palestinian, and one joint—but the performers hardly mentioned them. Political consciousness-raising was the order of the day. There’s not much room for NGOs on the battlefield.

Kudos to Michael Dorf and the Knit, which has been the epicenter of radical Jewish music™. That scene’s cultural nationalism doesn’t jibe with real politics, as Elliott Sharp knows: At the first Radical Jewish Music festival, he presented “Intifada”—and was not invited back. Sharp also knows Islamic music, having recorded duets with the multi-instrumentalist Bachir Attar. At the benefit, Sharp melded the exotic vocalizing of his processed guitar with pyrotechnic hand-drumming from one Zafer Tawil. Tawil’s gorgeous solo set on oud was one of the show’s highlights.

DJ Mutamassik has been less visible lately, but her work is more relevant than ever. She spun the Anti-Pop Consortium in with Egyptian accordion and mizmar (double-reed horn), linking hip-hop and Eastern pop provocatively—none of the bland beats of Britain’s Asian Underground. On piano, secularist Anthony Coleman hit clusters cannily arguing with the Hasidic-mystical “groove thing” put forward by Frank London, best known as the Klezmatics’ trumpeter. War and terrorism didn’t cloud Jennifer Charles’s mid-coital affect, but 2000’s “Cities Will Fall,” with her Elysian Fields partner Oren Bloedow on acoustic guitar, came back with a sickening prescience.

At a benefit, righteous anger is usually less convincing than poetry. Ammiel Alcalay read short, pungent selections from Lebanese and Palestinian writers and a particularly searing poem from the perspective of an Israeli soldier. Barbara Barg delivered a witty spiel-song about “the Fertile Crescent crew.” Linking Sharon, Ashcroft, and Mullah Omar under a feminist critique, she offered an escape hatch from the horror of having to support any player in this nightmare. It made me wonder whatever happened to ’80s-style political performance. Yes I remember now: the other Cheney.

The night’s most touching turns were antitheticals. Nahed is a Palestinian college student here who sang a simple song about losing a homeland, her lines answered by a wistful clarinet. Later, guitarist Marc Ribot did a medley of protest songs: “We’re never turning back, until we all are free.” Then he radicalized the idiom. Slamming the feedback, he unleashed his “Albert Ayler treatment,” a scrabbling mess of rage and glory. Seated comfortably at the end of a long but pleasant evening, we suddenly felt like we were there, facing a line of soldiers or the D.C. police. If Ribot and his ax led every protest march, I truly believe we would overcome. —David Krasnow

The Fugitive Kind

Reverberation, collision, incantation. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club leaned into the punk side of their repertoire April 24 at the Beacon, opening for the ever persevering Spiritualized. As white fog flowed into blue light, the band booted a seminal Patti Smith sample: “I measure the success of the night by the amount of piss and seed I canexude. . . . In heart I am an American. . . . In heart I am a Muslim. . . . In heart . . . ” The haunting fell away and the power trio, backlit by scarlet, stomped through the hoodoo of “Spread Your Love.” “Like a fever,” yelled guitarist Peter Hayes, on the edge of hoarse, letting his hollow body sing through the metaldelic comedown from the bridge. Minus the studio rev’s bluesy harmonica, the tune came off pure balls. “Louder,” cried a fan, as the crowd wandered into the half-filled hall.

A year ago, BRMC’s debut, melding vintage Brando stance with wicked fuzz sturm und twang over hard pop drumming, split a new signal for S.F./L.A. slammers. Grungenotic altos, spectral licks, and layered, lo-fi effects exalted the outcast legacy of early Stones and T. Rex, pushing an exhausted tradition beyond its last late great Ride/Stone Roses/ Swervedriver reprise. Wednesday’s four-song set, union-rules short, only summoned a handful of the star points the CD gathers. Jesus drone, Satanic Majesties trippiness, and upside-down “Here Comes the Sun” were dismissed in favor of treacherously passionate back-alley pounding. As a strobe light amped up in the kick drum, bassist Robert Turner tossed off “Whatever Happened to My Rock’n’Roll” with a Rotten sneer. “It’s the last one,” he mumbled in disheartened apology, as clockwatching roadies swarmed stageside. It wasn’t a hometown jam at the Silverlake Lounge, or a raucous Dandy Warhols pair-up, or an Oasis/Charlatans sellout, but in a high-gloss world, just a bit of deafening, snarky darkness will do. —Rosemary Passantino