Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff, the husband-and-wife team at the heart of Nefesh Mountain, has two core objectives. The obvious, existential one is engaging an audience with virtuosity and charm. Equally vital is celebrating Jewish traditions woven naturally with other roots music into the tapestry of Americana music. Their recordings feature some of the best players in that genre, including bluegrass mandolinist Sam Bush, dobro player Jerry Douglas and Phish bassist Mike Gordon.
This spring and summer, their quartet is touring the East Coast, playing festivals, private parties, and Jewish venues including synagogues and the Weinstein JCC. And on this particular morning, a third goal is keeping their cheerfully babbling baby from taking over the interview. The love story integral to the band’s creation makes touring a family affair. Zasloff has to tap out for childcare. “We travel with the baby,” Lindberg says. “We’re just being who we are, not inventing personas to sell something.”
The duo has complementary roles reflecting each of their pre-Nefesh backgrounds. The charismatic Zasloff has a musical theater background and multi-instrumentalist Lindberg a degree in jazz performance. “We are both front and center,” says Lindberg. “Doni is the bridge between the audience and the band. She is able to project emotion in a song in a way that there is no barrier. Everyone feels like she is singing to them. My role is less obvious. I’m trying to navigate the band through different instrumentals, jams, and improvisations. To transcend the stage musically.”
Their most recent release serves as a teaser for a forthcoming album: their cover version of the Allman Brothers’ “Revival.”
As the all-star collaborations suggest, they are excellent players. Integrating the Jewish elements, especially in a time of rising antisemitism, is both absolutely natural and a challenge. “We see it as threading the needle,” Lindberg says. “We love touring and playing music. The shows have big energy. And at the same time, we have a choice to make as Jewish Americans. We are so accustomed to assimilating and leaving it up to Hollywood or whoever to define our image.” In the early days, they overtly used liturgical and traditional songs. “But now we have gone on to write songs with a broader scope of our heritage, history, and culture. The way we exist, whether we pray or go to services or not -- just what makes us who we are.”
The result proclaims and reclaims a vital strand of folk music. Jewish musicians have been a huge part of American music from classical (Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass) to folk (Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs) to Broadway and popular songs (Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers, Steven Sondheim). But the default image of Americana music is Christian, from the Scots Irish hill folk roots of bluegrass to the gospel underpinnings of the secular blues.
“Americana is this melting pot of Appalachia – with the banjo coming from Africa – to the Mississippi, jazz, and rhythm and blues. You have people all over the world playing these forms. I think in the best sense it is a kind of utopia, where everyone cand embrace this music.” He points to bands like the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, and the Band who have created so much more with the music. “Musicologists get into trouble when they want to put everything in a box, tuck it away, and leave no room for growth or exploration. It took me a long time to get the courage to go out and break the rules. But it makes sense because this is just who we are.”
“Nefesh” translates roughly to “soul,” in the sense of consciousness and identity. The duo sees its mission as a “little crusade,” a gentle way of standing up to the stereotypes and Holocaust deniers. “We are not fighting anything. We are not politicians asking you to choose a side. We are trying to practice what Doni calls ‘radical love.’ Sometimes it would be easier to treat each show like just a gig, but there is a lot more to it.”
Their polished, musical virtuosity makes absorbing a virtuous message pleasurable. The band ranges expertly across both originals and covers. Anyone who likes singer songwriters, or bluegrass, alt-country, or any of the other styles they traverse will find something to admire.
Ethnic identity is essential, but some things are universal.
Nefresh Mountain plays the Weinstein Jewish Community Center on Thursday, May 11 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 for members, $36 for non-members,$15 for kids under 15, $10 for students, free for kids 5 and under.