It’s rare if at all that a concert preview would include bluegrass music with a synagogue in the same sentence. However, with the arrival of Nefesh Mountain for a two-night swing through Vermont the unlikely becomes a reality. During the first weekend of October, the band will give two performances, one at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 1 at Israel Congregation in Manchester, and the other at 7:30 p.m. Saturday Oct. 2 at Temple Sinai in South Burlington.
Based in New York City, Nefesh Mountain is a full-fledged bluegrass string quintet with solid credentials in live performance and in the recording studio. While a few bluegrass-inspired musicians like David Grisman and Andy Statman have worked to marry bluegrass with Judaism to create “Jewgrass” music, Nefesh Mountain has worked hard to create a sound they categorize as “the place where American bluegrass and old-time music meet with Jewish heritage and tradition.”
The band’s leaders, husband and wife Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff may be seen as genre-pioneers, and their music is considered eclectic by some, but the couple and their side musicians contend they are working hard to share their love for American music, their own cultural heritage, with a wide range of audiences.
If Nefesh Mountain was a gimmick or a not-too-serious attempt at playing bluegrass, they could not have attracted the top name musicians who played on their most recent album “Songs for the Sparrows.” Jerry Douglas (dobro), Sam Bush (mandolin) and Bryan Sutton (guitar), along with John Doyle (guitar/bouzouki) and Mike McGoldrick (whistles), contributed instrumental parts to the album.
As Lindberg says “Jerry and Sam are part of this amazing group of bluegrass musicians who really blew the doors off the whole genre back in the ’70s and ’80s, and paved the way for folks like us to bring in all kinds of influences. So, while this record is in many ways a celebration of American music, it’s also our attempt to introduce some otherworldly elements that you may not get from pure Americana.”
Lindberg and Zasloff founded Nefesh Mountain in 2014, releasing their self-titled debut in 2016.
“Bluegrass and acoustic music have always spoken to us — something about the sound of acoustic instruments creates the perfect landscape for very truthful storytelling,” Lindberg said in a previous interview.
The couple brings a long list of awards and accolades to Nefesh Mountain. Zasloff is a multi- award winning singer and songwriter. She has been awarded three Parents Choice Awards, received the Simcha Award from the International Jewish Music Festival in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and has produced over 10 albums and written two books, all while touring extensively throughout the United States, Canada, England, Australia and Israel.
Lindberg brings his musical background in jazz and classical forms to the acoustic world of American roots music. He plays banjo, mandolin and dobro, as well as guitar.
The band’s most recent album “Songs for the Sparrows” delves heavily into the religious heritage of Zasloff and Lindberg. They composed 13 of the 14 tracks based on a life-changing trip to Eastern Europe in 2018.
“We tracked down the towns where our families are from, and it was devastating to see the destruction of the Holocaust firsthand, and to know that we’re not so far removed from that time,” Lindberg said.
The album ultimately came from that experience, and from “thinking about the many groups of people who are horribly discriminated against in the U.S.” added Zasloff. “To us, ‘Sparrows’ represent a small but mighty voice. That’s why we chose to name the album for them — they’re often overlooked, but they’re beautiful and everywhere.”
Zasloff and Lindberg sing much of their material in Hebrew.
“When we sing in Hebrew,” Lindberg said, “it’s us celebrating our heritage and history.”
Lindberg also strongly connects to the music of Ireland and Scotland when sung in Gaelic because, “these are beautiful songs and melodies, regardless of the language barrier, to the point where I myself felt a sense of closeness and belonging with these rich traditions of Scotland and Ireland.”
Nefesh Mountain has been praised for its approach by several important bluegrass publications. No Depression said of the “Sparrow” album, “Jewish spirit and Appalachian traditions beautifully meet on common ground. What seems initially to be a curious novelty combining bluegrass and traditional Jewish music turns out to be an idea that makes absolute sense … The union is a perfect fit … It took matchmakers Nefesh Mountain to get these two together, and we’re thankful they did.”
Similarly Bluegrass Today wrote, “A highly-effective blend of these two spheres … only rarely have we heard a prominent Jewish counterpoint to the gospel music that has been a part of bluegrass since Bill Monroe’s earliest recordings.”
While Lindberg and Zasloff are the heart of the band, they are ably accompanied by longtime band mate and fiddle player Alan Grubner, David Goldenberg on mandolin, and Max Johnson on bass.
Nefesh Mountain’s music can be previewed on Spotify.