PITTSBURGH — If numbers mean anything, then there must be something to the sheer quantity of jam bands and their followers who happen to be Jewish. It’s rumored that nearly a third of Phish fans are Jewish, while acronyms like P.O.T. (put on tefillin) and L.S.D. (let’s start davening) became popular among Grateful Dead heads decades ago.
The Jewish predilection for jam bands has long been chronicled, even if anecdotally — so much so that penitent musician Sruli Broocker says he wishes he had a dollar for every person who became attracted to the Hasidic way of life after spending their youth fraternizing, finding themselves, and discovering God while following bands like Phish or The Grateful Dead around the country.
“Somehow their summers in RVs and muddy festival campgrounds, listening to transcendental guitar and bass lines, helped prepare them to one day travel the windy pathways of Hasidism,” Broocker wrote for the Chabad Lubavitch website.
At least, that’s what it did for him, in addition to helping inspire the formation of his band Chillent (yes, like chulent, but chill).
On an early August afternoon in a field surrounded by forest in the Catskills, Chillent played a set alongside acts like Matisyahu, Soulfarm, Moshav Band, and Zusha. The Camping Trip, a Shabbat-observant “Jewish Woodstock” festival in upstate New York, is now a yearly tradition.
“All these guys created this interesting sub genre of jam bands, incorporating Jewish themes, motifs, and ideas,” Broocker says of the other bands and musicians at The Camping Trip. “I think that us being included with them was definitely validating.”
‘I think that the philosophy of the band has always been first and foremost about jamming together, not trying to make a hit’
The band formed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, around three years ago in drummer Jules Coulson’s living room.
“I think that the philosophy of the band has always been first and foremost about jamming together, making music together, and communicating with one another, not trying to make a hit or perform in front of audiences,” Broocker says.
With Broocker on harmonica, Coulson on drums, and bandmates Shua Hoexter on saxophone, Ryan Kantner on bass, and Gedaliah Aronson on guitar, Chillent blends rock, jazz, blues, and klezmer in the image of not just a jam band, but one with a strong Jewish flavor.
Ranging in age from 27 through 40, the bandmates have more going on than just the band. Haber, Broocker, and Aronson are all married with kids, and each respectively works as a computer programmer, an animator and producer, and a butcher. Kantner and Coulson work as a music instructors.
But now, having played The Camping Trip on the same bill as artists like Kosha Dillz, G-Nome Project, and Flux Capacitor, they’re gaining momentum. This summer saw the release of their debut album “Jewish Soul Stew.”
With cuter songs like “Save the Schmaltz” and “Funkbrengen,” alongside niggunim (soulful Hasidic melodies) like “Al Tira” and “Doina Li,” and not to mention “Narrow Bridge” — a musical interpretation of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s teachings — Chillent fuses prayer and play in a stirring, melodic ramble.
‘It’s those musical moments breaking out of self-consciousness that you can feel the spirituality — whether at a farbrengn, or l’havdil, a Dead show’
“To me, all Hasidism emphasizes serving Hashem [God] joyfully,” says Broocker. Chabad Hasidism in particular, he adds, uses self-transcendence to obtain joy. “It’s in those musical moments breaking out of self-consciousness that you can feel the spirituality — whether at a farbrengn [Hasidic gathering, often involving alcohol], or l’havdil [not to draw parallels] a Dead show.”
The song “Funkbrengn” is a nod to that near-mystical, transcendental experience.
“There’s a certain magic that happens at a farbrengn, a person is able to get out of themselves,” says Broocker. “This group of guys [Chillent] has tapped into some of that spirit. The jam is a very spiritual thing. When it works, it becomes bigger than the sum of the parts, that’s when every person gets their own self out of the way.”
While Chillent doesn’t pin itself explicitly as a jam band, the musicians agree that’s the closest they’ll come to a singular genre.
“One thing that puts us in the jam scene is that we take risks on stage, we make mistakes sometimes and let it all hang out,” says Kantner. “When we’re having a good night and communicating, we have moments that are bigger than ourselves on stage. I don’t want to get too mystical, but when it’s really good we don’t have to think about it at all.”
‘Improvising is about listening and communicating’
In a collaborative five-way phone interview with The Times of Israel, the bandmates wait patiently for each person to finish speaking before completing each other’s thoughts, echoing and building upon what the previous person had said. Even over the phone, they’re in tune with each other, communicating in a unified yet dynamic stream of ideas.
“I agree with that 100 percent, improvising is about listening and communicating,” Aronson adds. “There’s a constant conversation and tension going on, and that’s what jamming is. We’re going with something [that] we don’t know where it’s supposed to go.”
The band abides by that philosophy and even sings about it in a couple of their songs.
For instance, “Narrow Bridge” (derived from Rebbe Nachman’s aphorism that “the whole world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid”) contains the line, “There’s beauty in this world, we gotta find it, realign it, with the source above.”
Whether coming from a religious or secular perspective (Coulson and Kantner are non-observant Jewish and Christian, respectively), the band coalesces around a certain faith that everything — the music, the harmony, the melody, the audience, and energy of the band — aligns with a greater source of creation and creativity. Call that source God or not, Chillent’s guiding philosophy embraces, but also goes beyond a squarely Jewish frame.
In fact, the majority of Chillent’s fanbase isn’t even Jewish. They play everywhere from weddings to Chabad houses and the circuit of local music venues in Pittsburgh, attracting audiences of over 100. This latest performance at The Camping Trip represents their largest gig yet. They also have a residency at the Park House, an Israeli-owned pub, where they’ve had room to grow as a band and play for diverse audiences.
“We play secular music. To us it’s just realignment with the source above, to Hashem,” says Aronson. “We use music for positive purposes to bring people together, and that’s for me, at least, what that intention would be connected to.”