Posts Tagged ‘Yosi Perlstein’


During election seasons like this one, words of patriotism pour out of people’s mouths. Candidates spew platitudes. Pundits and the public respond with their own. But what strikes me aren’t the words proclaimed during presidential campaigns but the music Americans play.

Last Sunday, Carolyn and I flew down to Los Angeles to hear our son Yosi play violin. For years, Yosi played fiddle with a popular band performing Americana—an amalgam of bluegrass, country, folk and other musical forms rooted in our native soil. He traveled across the United States and Canada and on tour in the United Kingdom, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Now living in L.A., he determined to improve his technique by shifting gears and studying classical music.

Yosi worked with several teachers when on the road. At home in Los Angeles, he found Beth Elliott, who heads Kadima Conservatory of Music. Kadima—Hebrew for forward—teaches students from young children to adults. Many receive scholarships. They come from a range of backgrounds but share several key traits: They love music. They want to improve their playing. They’re committed to working hard.

How very American—people with a passion seeking to be and do their best. And Kadima is as American an institution as they come. Beth is Jewish, her staff Jewish, white (including Armenian-born), Latino, African-American and Asian. Kadima students mirror this ethnic mix.

Were the student musicians good? The elementary- and middle-school kids displayed both talent and, overcoming initial nervousness, poise. You could hear how they will grow. The older students and adults proved to be truly accomplished and on the brink of great things.

The key to my experience: When I closed my eyes, I didn’t hear the playing of one or another ethnic group. I heard Americans united in their love of music.

Now, let me brag. Yosi was awesome. He and Beth played Vivaldi’s “Concerto for Two Violins in A.” They would have made Vivaldi proud. Carolyn and I were delighted as was the audience.  After the recital, no one considered that any of the students didn’t belong on stage because they weren’t white—which some were.

An added note: Saturday night, Carolyn and two other women performed in a show produced by Society Cabaret, Tunes of the City, as a workshop for budding songwriters. The trio sang “Ladies of Alamo Square” by Jeff Becker about San Francisco’s fabled and fabulously painted Steiner Street Victorian houses. The harmonies are tricky, but the trio did them justice.

Society Cabaret audiences talk about songs and patter, never about performers’ ethnicities or gender preferences. When it comes to music of any kind, you exhibit talent and discipline or you don’t. Performances are judged by their quality, integrity and effort. That’s the reason orchestras now hold “blind” auditions during which musicians are screened off from their judges.

The 2020 presidential campaign will be marked—or marred—by comments about what it means to be a “real American.” Some voters will define that by ethnicity, religion and gender factors rather than core human values.

I hope that the next time those folks sing America the Beautiful at a ballgame or public gathering, they’ll listen to the voices around them. They’ll hear just how beautiful Americans sound when we’re singing together.

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It was another step up on another big stage. Last Saturday, Hurray for the Riff Raff—my son Yosi, resident fiddler—performed at the Outside Lands festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Carolyn and I were among the few seniors in a sold-out venue of 70,000 youthful partygoers. Here’s my report.

The more I see and hear, the more I appreciate the quality and integrity of Hurray for the Riff Raff. Alynda Lee Segarra, the band’s singer/songwriter, creates music that entertains while being socially conscious and thought provoking.

The band’s set went well. They opened performances at Sutro Stage at twelve-twenty. A good crowd assembled and had a great time, singing along and dancing. Of course, Carolyn and I were right up front. Note: Yosi changed bows during the performance. He explained later that wood bows often don’t do well outdoors; carbon fiber bows resist the weather.

After the performance, Carolyn and I, along with our son Aaron and son-in-law Jeremy went to the VIP hospitality pavilion overlooking the Polo Field. A tent at least 150 feet long, it offered tables and chairs, and other seating with a view of the Land’s End stage where Sir Elton John closed the festival Sunday night.

I ordered a beer. I was “carded.” I was required to get a green wristband proving I was 21. Well, I was—50 years ago. A young woman asked for ID. The man with her laughed and informed her that I really was old enough to drink. But who knows? Soon I might have to show ID to prove I’m not too old. Beer in hand, I listened to a band whose female singer strutted the stage a la Mick Jagger. She was better looking, but I knew this only from the giant TV screens flanking the stage. From the VIP tent, performers were specks. Fortunately, the sound system was good.

Drinks consumed, we wandered a bit. The crowd swelled. By two o’clock, getting from place to place over the large area fenced off for the festival proved time consuming. Lines at the port-a-potties—there were many—stood 12 deep. The festival map offered a reasonable approximation of various venues and highlights—food, drinks, merchandise, a beauty bar—but was a bit fuzzy on detail. We tried to get into a comedy show but couldn’t. I left at three, my mission accomplished—almost.

As it happened, the band’s Airbnb accommodations were in a dicey neighborhood. As band members checked the place out on Friday after driving up from Los Angeles where they played the Skirball Center, they saw drug deals going down right outside. Yosi called. Could the band stay at our house? The band camped out for two nights. We provided breakfasts. By Sunday, all but Yosi remained.

What’s next? The Riff Raff will record a new CD in Nashville. In November, they’ll play the Fox Theater in Oakland, opening on tour for City and Colour (Dallas Green.). They’ll also perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall on January 29.

Am I proud? Believe it. Do I take credit? No way. Hurray for the Riff Raff keeps moving up thanks to hard work and dedication. Alynda, Yosi and the band have paid their dues. And it never hurts to make great music.

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Last Wednesday night, Hurray for the Riff Raff (Yosi Perlstein, resident fiddler) appeared on the 13th annual Americana Music Awards Show in Nashville. They performed “The Body Electric,” a cut on their latest CD, “Small Town Heroes.” “The Body Electric” should be mandatory listening in every locker room in the National Football League.

Alynda Lee Segarra sings, “And tell me what’s a man with a rifle in his hand gonna do for a world that’s so sick and sad? He’s gonna shoot me down, put my body in the river. Cover me up with the leaves of September.” This isn’t paranoia. Survey after survey demonstrates that millions of women suffer from domestic violence at some time in their lives.

The NFL’s response to domestic violence has been less than impressive. A number of players have been arrested for assaulting girl friends or wives, and the league has struggled to implement a meaningful policy. The case of running back Ray Rice, recently released by the Baltimore Ravens, has become notorious. A video from an Atlantic City casino shows Rice slugging his girlfriend (now wife) wife in an elevator and knocking her unconscious. “Gee, who knew?” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell virtually said. Yet a video released earlier and seen by the NFL shows Rice dragging his victim out of the elevator as if he was taking out the garbage. So how did Goodell think she got into that state?

Rice settled with legal authorities last May. When he completes a pretrial diversion program, third-degree aggravated assault charges will be dismissed. The NFL, with its zero-tolerance policy, later suspended Rice for two—count ‘em, two—games. Uproar followed. The Ravens felt the heat and cut Rice. He is appealing through the NFL Players Association.

The San Francisco 49ers face the same challenges. Defensive end Ray McDonald was arrested August 31, charged with assaulting his pregnant girlfriend. Citing due process alongside its own zero-tolerance policy, the Niners played McDonald in their first two games. Of course, they were missing another defensive end, Aldon Smith, their best pass rusher. Smith was suspended for nine games for weapons possession and a false bomb threat. This followed prior substance abuse. Other Niners players have problems, too, suggesting that individual player photos may now consist of mug shots.

Oh, and Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer was arrested Wednesday on charges of aggravated assault against the mother of his 18-month-old child. Police said he head-butted his wife and broker her nose. This followed charges against Minnesota’s all-pro running back Adrian Peterson for beating his son. The Vikings decided to let Peterson play, heard the uproar that followed and suspended him with pay.

Yes, men in all walks of life hurt women and kids. But few corporations or groups are as visible as the NFL—or wave the flag and salute Mom and apple pie as publicly and piously.

So here’s a suggestion for the NFL: Forget the usual halftime show at this season’s Super Bowl. Hire Hurray for the Riff Raff and several other artists to sing about domestic violence. Pay them a decent fee. Then donate the savings on the bloated budget to organizations supporting women. Sometimes you have to put words to music before people hear them.

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Last Friday night, I led Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Sherith Israel. I gave my drash (mini sermon) from notes. My theme: There aren’t two kinds of people in this world. There are “three.” Here basically is how it went.

First—appreciating showmanship—I asked three volunteers to choose a card from each of three categories: dessert places, movie stars and verses from the week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetse (Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19). My task: relate Baskin-Robbins, Felicity Huffman (of “Desperate Housewives” fame) and Deut. 22:5, “A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing…” What? That’s difficult?

To begin, Torah presents us with two basic sexual identities—straight male and straight female. It forbids sex between men. It doesn’t mention sex between women, possibly because such relations don’t lead to procreation and legal claims concerning inheritance. Now, let’s put it all together.

Baskin-Robbins’ 31 flavors reveal much about sexual identity. Human beings encompass a broad variance in anatomy (witness the challenges the Olympic Games have confronted defining who can compete as a man or a woman), sexual identity and sexual preference. Thus the existence of the “third” kind of person within the broad category of “not two.”

Felicity Huffman starred in the 2005 movie “Transamerica.” As Bree, a transgender woman—born physically a man but identifying as a woman—she was about to have surgery that would make her as anatomically close to a woman as she could be. Sadly, Bree’s mother couldn’t accept her. But trying to impose one of two flavors in a 31-flavor world accomplishes nothing. The “third kind of person” isn’t making a choice but fulfilling complex physiological and hormonal imperatives. I know.

My son Yosi, fiddler with the band Hurray for the Riff Raff, was born my daughter Rachel. Yosi was bat-mitzvahed and confirmed at Sherith Israel. But she had trouble understanding her sexual identity. So did we. She wanted to be known as a boy and be called “he” or “him.” Beyond that, his sexual identity couldn’t be squeezed into any particular mold. We were confused. Rachel was delicate and feminine in many ways. But we were open. We concluded that Yosi—he later legally changed his name—was simply Yosi. And Yosi is not just a wonderful musician but also a wonderful son and human being.

In this light, I cite another reference to “three kinds of people.” The late Rabbi Michael Signer wrote about people who read the Bible. Pre-critical readers accept everything. Critical readers find flaws and reject everything. The third group, post-critical readers, acknowledges what it finds disagreeable while still holding to the Torah and its wisdom. Post-critical readers live with the biblical cognitive dissonance about which I wrote last week.

So did the Rabbis of the Mishnaic era two thousand years ago. This week’s Torah portion condemns a wayward, defiant son to stoning. Yet the Rabbis made capital punishment virtually impossible. They didn’t turn away from the Torah; they used elements of the text to make their case

A final story, possibly apocryphal but True with a capital T. During the Holocaust, Jews in a camp fiercely debate God’s existence. Finally, someone announces it’s time for Mincha, the afternoon service. All go off to pray.

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Last Tuesday, I saw my son Yosi play fiddle with Hurray for the Riff Raff at the Independent here in San Francisco. The club sold out a week in advance. The band played a lot of tunes from their new CD, “Small Town Heroes.” Much has gone right for the Riff Raff since I wrote about them in July after they opened for Alabama Shakes at the Hollywood Palladium. This Tuesday night, they appear on TV with Conan O’Brien (TBS). In August, they open for Dr. John in New York’s Central Park. More big events are coming—all thanks to chemistry.

No question, Alynda Lee Segarra, the band’s founder and singer/songwriter, is a driven young woman. Also a sweetheart. But the Riff Raff has taken off because it’s prepared to deliver great music night after night.

Wherever a band resides on the food chain, its members have to work together. Like most professionals, Hurray for the Riff Raff spends lots of time on the road. There’s some flying and much driving. Some good hotels and lots of modest accommodations. Fatigue and constant proximity always come into play. If people can’t get along, the act suffers.

Chemistry isn’t easy to attain. Alynda and Yosi spent a lot of time looking for the right musicians—people combining talent with the willingness to work hard and avoid drama. They found them in keyboardist Casey McAllister, bass player Callie Millington and drummer David Jameson. The result was evident at the Independent: a tight sound and command of the room.

This isn’t just a plug for Hurray for the Riff Raff (although it is one). Pro basketball offers another great example of chemistry. The San Antonio Spurs (I lived in San Antonio long ago) have won four NBA championships since 1999. They barely lost to the Miami Heat in last year’s finals. This season, the Spurs, again coached by Gregg Popovich, a future hall of famer, finished with the league’s best record, 62–20.

Chemistry was a prime factor. Many teams look for big scorers to lead them. Popovich emphasizes team play. Individuals give up opportunities for the common good. The Spurs’ leading scorer, Tony Parker, averaged only 16.7 points per game, making him the league’s 41st leading scorer. Kevin Durant of Oklahoma City led the league at 32.0. Still, the Thunder finished three games behind the Spurs. The NBA’s third top scorer, Carmelo Anthony, averaged 27.4 for the New York Knicks, a dysfunctional franchise and a team so lacking in chemistry, it failed to make the playoffs.

There’s nothing magical about achieving chemistry. It forms when individuals curb their egos and direct their activities to the common good. Bring together people with great talent but little regard for communal purpose, and you get an underachieving group—maybe an outright failure. In music, in sports, in any endeavor, a willingness to roll up your sleeves, do the little things and ignore the spotlight produces winners.

Hurray for the Riff Raff and the San Antonio Spurs are two inspiring examples of chemistry leading to success. I wonder if anyone in Congress has given this some thought.

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Hollywood used to make movies about performers suddenly discovered and thrust into stardom. It happens to some. But most take their careers a day at a time, becoming highly accomplished but not necessarily famous. I’ve seen it first hand.

My wife Carolyn is a very fine actor. She’s had small roles on two network TV shows—Chuck and Grey’s Anatomy. She’s also done wonderful stage work. And work it is with endless classes and countless auditions. A performer’s rise to public acclaim comes through great effort and the occasional shedding of tears—all usually hidden.

My son Aaron is a very talented dancer now concluding his career. He discovered his passion for dance as a freshman at Humboldt State. He won a spot with the Eisenhower Dance Ensemble in Detroit. Years with ODC/Dance in San Francisco and Alwyn Nikolais Dance Theatre of Salt Lake City took him on many trips to Europe and Southeast Asia. Audiences saw the beauty and athleticism. We knew the sweat and the pain.

I’m also proud of a new “not-quite-yet-but-maybe” overnight sensation—my son Yosi. Wednesday night, Carolyn and I flew to Los Angeles to see Yosi perform (fiddle and drums) with Hurray for the Riff Raff at the Hollywood Palladium. The band just signed a contract with ATO Records and opened for one of the hottest groups in America—and their label-mates—Alabama Shakes.

Yosi’s road has been long. He started playing drums in middle school. At San Francisco’s School of the Arts, he became an outstanding percussionist. After high school Yosi wanted to play the viola, but that was too big an instrument to take on his travels around the country. He bought a violin on a Friday and was playing on Sunday. He’s taken lessons from outstanding teachers and practiced with unwavering determination.

Then there’s the road. For years Riff Raff has played gig after gig across America, many in small clubs, bars and even private houses. Glamour? Not exactly. Riding in a van means too little sleep. A tight budget means limited food choices. Even a dressing room can be a luxury.

But Riff Raff keeps going, and each year they rise. The band has appeared at big festivals like South by Southwest in Austin. They’ve toured the United Kingdom three times and played on the Continent. Yosi and Alynda lee Segarra, the band’s fabulous singer/songwriter and leader, even appeared on Treme, HBO’s series set in New Orleans (where Yosi used to live). Their CD’s are rightfully acclaimed, and they’ve won many thousands of loyal fans.

There are no guarantees, but their hard work seems to be paying off. Las Vegas and Vancouver dates with the Shakes are coming up. There’s the Vancouver Folk Festival on the 23rd. On July 25th they open for Judy Collins in Waterford, Connecticut. Two days later they play at the Newport Folk Festival. On August 10 Hurray for the Riff Raff appears in New York at Lincoln Center’s outdoor Roots of Music Festival.

So Hurray for Hollywood. And a bigger hurray for every artist rocketed to stardom one exhausting leap after another.

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