Southern Avenue plays driving Memphis soul with an Israeli twist
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Southern Avenue plays driving Memphis soul with an Israeli twist

Israeli guitarist plays Memphis blues

The sound of Memphis was built by Stax Records. Wilson Pickett, Booker T. and the MG’s, and Sam & Dave are just some of the acts that came to be identified as “Memphis soul.”

The music from the famed label mixed unison horn lines, guitar, bass, a driving beat and background vocals inspired by gospel church bands. Hot, soulful and urban, it was the perfect sound for the corner bar on a hot, summer night.

Southern Avenue’s debut album was released by Stax. The retro sound paid homage to the label’s past while adding their own twists to the familiar sound. The band features singer Tierinii Jackson, her sister Tikyra on drums, keyboardist Jeremy Powell and Ori Naftaly on guitar.

Naftaly is an Israeli-born guitar player who moved to Memphis in 2013 to take part in the International Blues Challenge. He advanced to the semifinal round and, while he didn’t win, he decided to make the city his home base. He hired the Jackson sisters for a solo band he was fronting when he was searching for a singer.

“I was looking for the best singer in Memphis. Everyone told me about Tierinii [Jackson], and she told me about her sister.”

The three played in the guitarist’s solo project, the Ori Naftaly Band, before deciding to work together as a band.

“Working together and sharing experiences is way better than living it on your own,” the guitarist explained. He views his collaboration with the Jackson sisters as supernatural, “When I changed band members it was a really low moment in my life. I was asking God what is the reason that this is happening? I knew there had to be a reason. When I met the girls, I realized this was God’s answer. It was what I was waiting for my whole life. Once we decided to work and sacrifice together, everything started rolling in a very positive way.”

The band’s new album, “Keep On” was released on May 10 by Concord Records. Recorded at the legendary Sam Phillips Recording Studio, it features several noted guest musicians from Memphis.

The CD continues to explore the southern-soul sound of the first album. It highlights the depth and feeling over technical flash. “We wanted to showcase our songwriting,” Naftaly explained. “We don’t care about solos or showing how good we are. We’ve done that before.”

While Naftaly’s influence is American and British blues and jazz, his Israeli upbringing continues to inform his playing.

“I’m not a purist. I moved from blues to jazz, to rock, to psychedelic and progressive stuff. When I was 21, I started to learn classical guitar from Shlomo Ydov [a famous Israeli singer/songwriter]. This is why Southern Avenue has such a unique sound. If the band worked with a different guitar player from Memphis, it would sound like a Memphis blues band.”

“Where and how I grew up and what I’ve seen and experienced and heard and overheard it’s in every note and everything I do. That’s what makes us unique.”

While the band is proud of the album, Naftaly pointed out that the band’s live shows are a different medium.

“A live show should be the best live show you can see. We see this as a spiritual event. When we play live, we give everything we’ve got. Our songs talk about things. We don’t talk about the sun or the moon, we talk about real-life things and try to elevate you. The shows are very personal to us and different every time. We give it all. This is our life.”

In the end, Naftaly believes that things happen for a reason.

“In Israel, everyone lives close. There is nowhere to run or hide. It’s hard to believe in God. But when I took the leap and came here, I’ve toured almost all the states and been through what people haven’t been through in their whole life. I can tell you I believe in God. My story is proof and I can’t deny it. I don’t know how I made it so far before. When you leave your house, leave your country, then you’re in the grace of God, you’re dependent on Him. There are so many things that have made me more spiritual through touring.”

Southern Avenue returns to Pittsburgh on July 10, playing Club Café. pjc

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@

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