Bernie Pearl's Israel Blues Festival Tour

Steve Propes

Imagine you book a one-week jaunt to a land thousands of miles away, not-withstanding the chance a full fledged war might break out, or best case, some rockets might land in your vicinity. Some might reconsider. Not so for veteran Long Beach bluesman Bernie Pearl.

Pearl’s best known signpost is his several decade “Nothin’ But the Blues” on KLON, linked to the ultra-successful Long Beach Blues Festival at CSULB, which for three decades was a the town’s signature event along with the Long Beach Grand Prix. That is until it was cancelled by the newly-installed outside management of radio KKJZ, which has since moved the station to Westwood.

However, his journey with the blues guitar dates back to his days at his brother Ed Pearl’s famed club, the Ashgrove, where Bernie experienced the blues of guitar legends like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Freddy King.

Now, Pearl is branching out halfway around the world to keep the blues flame alive, and that of his own career, nabbing a spot at the prestigious Jacob’s Ladder Festival held in Israel in mid-May.

The El Al flight takes 14 hours to Israel, 15 hours back. “I liken the experience of an immigrant ship in 1947. The flight is comparable to extra time in Israel, people yelling, arguing, ultra orthodox presence, disputes, kids crying. People are very outspoken, whether you want to know or not. It’s very out there, it’s very beneficial, likely talking about politics,” said Pearl.

“I had booked six different engagements. Only one didn’t have a big audience and most of them weren’t there for the blues. Five of the performances were excellent, three were beyond what I could imagine. Two were concert-like, great response, two were more interactive, people went crazy for it,” said Pearl.

“The promoters happened to catch my show at another small festival, that led to an invitation to play. It’s a paid gig, but it doesn’t pay that much, so I’ve lined up a couple of other gigs.” Hardly a blues event, “Jacob’s Ladder is a folk festival, Yemenite, Slovokian, Russian and general folk music of very long standing.”

Pearl’s Jacob’s Ladder concert was held indoors. “It was a pretty full house, about 100 people, pin drop silent. That same Saturday night, I played Mike’s Bar in Tel Aviv, next to the American embassy. Pearl’s driving partner, one time Long Beach resident and financial adviser Glenn McKinney talked to some embassy employees. They told him the move to Jerusalem is for show only. All the regular business will be conducted at the consulate, but they generally were in favor of moving the embassy.” Earlier in his tour, Pearl also played Mike’s in Jerusalem and had a very successful concert at Nola Sox in Haifa according to McKinney.

“Last year was the first time I ever played Israel. I went for a tourist type of visit, got in touch with a guy who does a blues radio show there. ‘Oh you’re coming, let me put you in touch with a promoter.’” Apart from a folk festival, “One of the people I stay with is from Long Beach. I played a couple of house concerts, have a friend in a kibbutz, who traded rooms for a kibbutz concert.”

“I speak enough Hebrew to schmooze my way out of places. The old city at the wall, that’s where the golden dome is. They allow people to come up and walk around, but not pray. They confiscate the skull caps, don’t want trouble. When the armed guard says no more, he means it.” At his first tour in 2017, Pearl said, “I told him when I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to get in. He got on the phone, ‘do you have room for one more?’”

In that tour, “We took a long trip from the north, through the Valley of the Dead Sea, Jordan Valley. There was one checkpoint. We were in a kibbutz right at the foot of the Golan, where on a clear day you can see Damascus, Syria.” On this 2018 trip, the view was obscured by haze.

McKinney posted on Facebook on May 8 from Caesarea, the personal home of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that Israel radio reported, “Israeli military on high alert. public shelters in the north open. short time later: fighter jets heard in the skies above, heading north. Israeli radio now reporting multiple Syrian targets hit. In short, we’re safe and sound, monitoring things very closely. We’ll keep plans fluid to the extent we can or need to.” There was apparently no need.

“Every place you go into has an armed guard, kindergarten, drug store, whatever. Society is on guard, but I don’t feel the tension there,” said Pearl. “We saw no troop movements, alerts or alarms. We had access to newscasts in Hebrew.

“I understood about a quarter of what was said. There were two nights when Israeli jets went overhead, but there was no incoming, no explosions, no increased security or troops on the road. The school kids are going to schools. We had plans to go up to the Golan Heights wineries. The usual tourist buses were up there. There was no apprehension. The wine was excellent and we had a great lunch.”


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