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Photo by Isabelle Randolph

I wasn’t one of the tens of thousands who travelled to Indio for Coachella. No ‘chella? No problem. It afforded me the time to go to one of the most mystical concerts I have ever had the pleasure of attending. Friday April 22. Weekend two of Coachella 2016. Downtown LA. Teragram Ballroom. 9 pm sharp. Asaf Avidan.

Asaf walks out and sits down on a chair with an acoustic guitar. No opening band. No emcee. No intro. No hello. No pleasantries of any sort. Just him in the spotlight as he opens with “Is This It?

His voice, almost androgynous in its piercing nasal tone, is strong and clean, almost despite itself. Each note slices through the room, propelled by the surprisingly live acoustics in the Teragram. No one chatting in the crowd. Everyone listening with an enthusiastic intensity. And it’s intense. Nobody backed into this show. Everyone is there because they know Asaf is one of the great sleeper talents in the world of music. The room is still with reverence and appreciation as his lyrics speak to shattered prisms, imperfections, and an existential pain that is at once artistically sublime and totally human in its poetic yet simple phrasing.

Second song. Still no intro. Instead, the lights dim to purple in homage to Prince who had only the day before passed on to the other side. As Asaf performs “Fair Haired Traveler” the crowd is left to marinate in the poetry of his story telling.

…she was just a skinny brown eyed girl
with a hunger for tomorrow
and I was then obese by pain
I had all that I could swallow…

Regret. Reflection. Redemption. Gluttony … for pain. Kinda gnarly.

Asaf Avidan @ Teragram Ballroom 4/22/16
Photo by Isabelle Randolph

If he could, I think Asaf would tap his lyrics out in morse code on the rawness of our exposed nerves. He carries on like this for two more songs. Just him and the nylon string guitar. Oscillations between folk balladry and operatic explosions of sound that continually tear at the stitches of old wounds, reopening conversations with ourselves that we thought we’d buried deep in the furthest reaches of our gut. Then there’s a pause and introductions are finally made.

If the music didn’t stand on its own merits, listening to Asaf Avidan talk would be worth the time. In his opening address to the crowd, he describes his art as a voyage, a quest for truth and honesty, then pivots to a confession of hubris, admitting that on occasion he indulges in the narcissistic voyeurism of googling himself. The ensuing critique of the labels and comparisons he encounters in the googleverse hits a little close to home for me since labels and comparisons make up the lion’s share of my music reviews. But this is mostly a playful setup to mention the French critic who referred to Asaf’s voice as that of a “wounded cat”.

You can kind of picture a snobby French douche saying those words with the misplaced pomp and arrogance of Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau. But this, in turn, is mostly a setup for an existential discourse on the human condition being analogous to the precise moment a cat gets hit by a speeding car. Hollering at the top of its cat lungs, as it flies through the air, contemplating in a brief flash of revelation its individual mortality and finitude. Hollering. Bawling. Not going quietly.

Asaf Avidan @ Teragram Ballroom 4/22/16
Photo by Isabelle Randolph

That is the truth Asaf wants us to embrace. That moment of clarity that a dying cat experiences as its body is plastered onto the hood of a car. Mind you, these aren’t my words. They’re Asaf’s. More or less. Words both dark and playful. He seems to know that half the room is grinning in appreciation while the other half is quietly a bit horrified. Effect achieved. More or less. Either way, he appears to give very few fucks as he picks up the nylon string guitar and begins to play “Reckoning Song” aka “One Day”. A classic in its own right, the folktronica remix of which by Germany’s DJ Wankelmut hit number one on almost every chart in Europe.

Ironically, the remix of “Reckoning Song” only climbed to seven in Asaf’s native Israel. Which brings me to an aside with which I am fantastically intrigued: the influx of Israelis to the Berlin arts scene. I have to wonder if there’s a self awareness in the move. A reclamation of a lost Judeo-German artistic elite (think of the flashback scenes in Transparent season 2, if nothing else). Based purely on my own anecdotal evidence, a few feel the weight of history in their symbolic “return” while many are simply drawn to the same wildly liberating and creative vibe that has permeated Berlin’s new Bohemia since the 1990s. But I’ll ruminate on this historic meditation another time. In the present moment, the acoustic guitar brought goosebumps to my arms while the intensity of the nostalgia in the lyrics and the delicate pain in Asaf’s voice had me visualizing Schrödinger’s cat hurtling through time / space, frozen in the self-conscious death throes of its final yet eternal moment.

As Asaf slowly winds down to the last note, a note that wraps the room in the warmth of its finality and silence, a girl in the front row, not quite aware she is even speaking out loud, gasps: “… oh my god …!”

Her words echo through the room with a raw spontaneity. The rest of us remain silent for about a microsecond, just long enough to marinate in the afterglow of the song … just long enough to tacitly concur with the verbal ejaculation of our accidental critic. And when that microsecond passes, we all totally lose our collective shit. It is, for all intents and purposes, a walk off moment. And yet, at this point, Asaf is only about a third of the way into the set. We’re still on the upslope. From here forward though, he starts to diversify, unleashing a full arsenal of skills that demonstrate why this is and need only be a one man show … and why perhaps – just perhaps – being here on the floor of the Teragram Ballroom while half of LA is riding inflatable swans at some pool party in Cochaellaville is perhaps – just perhaps – a brilliant call.

Asaf Avidan @ Teragram Ballroom 4/22/16
Photo by Isabelle Randolph

Behind him is a quiver of guitars, including a lap steel and a four string gas can. Each time he swaps one for another, he’s able to shift seamlessly from country western bluegrass vibes to Spanish vibes, to Yemenite and Moroccan vibes. (Who needs #WhiteGirlsInTeepees / #FestivalVibes when you have so many legit vibes right here in DTLA?) And then when it suits him, he straps on the harmonica and beats a kick drum like a kooky busker on 3rd Street Promenade. It’s brilliant.

But where Asaf begins to pass the threshold of talent and enter into the realm of genius is when he uses the drum machine and the sound board to start looping and layering in real-time a background of beats, guitar licks, and his own voice. All of a sudden, he’s his own orchestra. He’s his own rave. He’s whatever he feels like being. Because he can. It’s so fucking sick.

Shortly before the encore, he pauses for a beat and shines the stage lights on the crowd. Glossing himself both “introspective” and “an egotistical dick”, he explains that he needs to see the crowd in order to digest and internalize the experience. This is the only way he can make it art … as opposed to just some dude crying to himself. With a few playful words, he manages to baptize the audience in what’s really a pretty sophisticated expression of performance theory, the role of audience participation, and the dialectical necessity of a social dynamic to performative art.

And this is why I am man crushing on this guy like no other. He is this hyper intellectual asshole, but because he’s so self-aware of what an asshole he is, he makes himself a fantastically lovable asshole. Who else could wrap their encore by exploring the etymology of the word “clue”, tracing it back to the myth of Ariadne, the Minotaur, Theseus, and a ball of yarn…? This fucking guy, that’s who. I try to be selective with my writing, not bothering to write up bands or musicians that I don’t really like, but there are a select few that truly blow my mind and who I would recommend unconditionally. Asaf Avidan falls into that category. He brings that much heat. So next time he’s in town do go see him. By any means necessary.