RebbeSoul leader goes solo

Bruce Burger, leader of the popular San Francisco-Los Angeles band RebbeSoul, is going solo.

It's not just music, though the 29-year-old instrumentalist promises plenty of that when he delivers his one-man show at the Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael on Thursday, April 10.

"RebbeSoul-O," an 85-minute theater piece, traces Burger's own musical odyssey from a jazz fusion guitarist to a Jewish music phenomenon. It was scripted by Richard Krevolin, whose "Boychik" was a recent off-Broadway hit. The show is sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.

The playwright and the musician first met when Krevolin asked Burger to provide music for some of his plays.

"He was sending me scripts and I was sending him music and, in the process, we got to know each other pretty well," he said during a phone interview.

After hearing the story of Burger's life, Krevolin asked him to put it on tape.

"He asked for one tape and I sent him five," Burger said. "The stories just kept coming.

"He wanted me to do a one-man show and I said: `No way. I can't do that.' But he came up with a script that was essentially the story of my life and it was funny and good and a real eye-opener."

The result, directed by Krevolin, opened in March at Ovations Theatre in Los Angeles for a three-weekend run and has been booked in venues around the country, including New York's Greenwich Village.

So what's so special about Burger's life? It's really the music he plays — and how he got to it — from a fairly conventional Conservative upbringing in Utica, N.Y., to the Chassidic neighborhoods of Los Angeles, from Jimi Hendrix to "Avinu Malkenu."

Burger was a studio musician and playing guitar with the L.A. fusion band Jazzburger when a chance encounter led him back to his roots.

The way he tells it, he was walking down the street one day, "around Fairfax and Beverly, which is one of the Jewish 'hoods in L.A.," when he saw a man playing a violin.

"I went to give him money…but he wouldn't take it," Burger recalled. "Instead, he gave me a business card and told me to go to this address and have Shabbat dinner.

"So, a few days later, I go there," he continued, "and nobody's ever even heard of this guy. But they asked me to stay so I did."

And he returned again and again.

One night after dinner, the host, Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, fondly known as "Schwartzie," took him to a tish, a sort of Chassidic jam session, and Burger found his voice.

"There we were, a Russian rebbe and tons of these black-coated Chassids and me in a tank top," he said. "They all started pounding on the table and singing and they were so musical it was like listening to an amazing band. They were so solid.

"I was struck by the amazing amount of music we have in our Jewish culture that goes largely unnoticed. I thought, `This music needs to be heard. It's the essence of our Jewish souls, of who we are.'"

RebbeSoul was born. Its album of the same name came out in 1993. One cut, Burger's contemporized version of an ancient High Holy Day prayer, renamed "Avinu," became a runaway hit on San Francisco pop station KKSF.

Global Pacific Records president Howard Sapper signed Burger and his band. A second disc, "Fringe of Blue," which contains a revision of "Avinu," came out in 1996 and two more are in the works.

Meanwhile, Burger has moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco, to be with Rita, his bride of eight months.

Although he admits to being more religious than formerly, Burger has not become a Chassid, or even Orthodox .

"I consider myself a musician, not a rabbi," he said. "I'm not qualified to act as anybody's spiritual guide."