Ori Naftaly (right) with Southern Avenue
Ori Naftaly (right) with Southern Avenue

Israeli bringing his red-hot Memphis blues band to Marin

The Israeli-born guitarist, composer and producer Ori Naftaly is having a hot, hot summer touring with his band, Southern Avenue. They will be bringing their soul and blues blend to the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley for a show on Thursday, Aug. 8.

The rising Memphis-based quintet earned its chops playing in blues capitals such as Memphis and St. Louis, where they performed every couple of months after they started out in 2015.

Naftaly described the band’s sound as the “perfect Memphis stew,” fusing blues with soul and funk. In May, the group released its sophomore album, “Keep On,” and it peaked at No. 5 on Billboard’s top blues albums chart.

Writing “Keep On” took a while, with band members writing 40 songs for the album and then narrowing the list to 12. Trademarks of the album are tracks such as “Whiskey Love” and “Savior,” funky tunes featuring Memphis-bred Tierinii Jackson’s powerful vocals. Naftaly’s favorite is “We’re Gonna Make It,” a song he said is for the fans in that it lets them “be with us at times when they need support and when they need somebody who relates to them.”

Yet it’s also a song for the band members.

“We’re always on tour, and we’re never with our families, especially me, and there’s a lot of day-to-day sacrifices,” Naftaly said. “We’re gonna make it through these times.”

Naftaly got his start near Netanya, Israel, where he started music lessons and guitar at age 5. He listened to American blues, soul, funk and jazz music with his dad and developed a passion for it.

After spending two years at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Ramat Hasharon, Naftaly began recording with Israeli musicians and formed the Ori Naftaly Band. That band made history in 2013 when it became the first Israeli group to reach the finals of the International Blues Challenge, held annually in Memphis.

Memphis blues made a big impression on Naftaly, who moved to the city in 2013 and toured with local musicians, playing more than 200 shows in 40 states.

“I fell in love with the music city,” he said. “For me, it was really a dream come true.”

It’s odd being an Israeli in Memphis, Naftaly said.

“I feel different everywhere I go,” he said. “I felt different in Israel because I loved rock ’n’ roll music, and then when I moved to Europe for three years with my band before I even came to Memphis and traveled, I felt stranger there. And then coming to Memphis and America. Still weird. Israeli guy playing blues.”

But Naftaly is grateful for the American Jewish community.

“Without the Jewish community, I wouldn’t be able to stay in America like I have,” he said, noting that families across the country hosted him and gave him advice when he was on his initial tour.

In 2016, Naftaly reached the Blues Challenge finals with Southern Avenue, this time representing Memphis. The band signed with Stax Records that summer, and their eponymous debut album, released in February 2017, topped the iTunes blues charts, reached No. 6 on Billboard’s top blues albums chart and was in the top 40 in Americana Radio for three months.

The band took its name from a street that runs from the eastern edge of Memphis to Soulsville, the original home of the band’s record label Stax Records. Southern Avenue passed through Naftaly’s neighborhood, and when he proposed the name, it stuck.

It “lets us be who we are without confining us to a genre or a box,” Naftaly said.

Southern Avenue is coming off a June tour to Spain, Germany, Poland and three other European countries and is in the midst of a hectic summer tour that includes gigs all over the U.S. and Canada. Before the Mill Valley show, the band will play in Mammoth Lakes and Los Angeles, and afterward they’ll have a quick stop in British Columbia before continuing on to North Carolina.

With millions of streams and 100,000 reported monthly listeners on Spotify, the band hopes to dazzle its U.S. audiences with the same soulful sound that has made it a worldwide success. Blues lovers in the Bay Area can anticipate the experience.

Southern Avenue performs 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 8 at Sweetwater Music Hall, 19 Corte Madera Ave., Mill Valley. $20 advance, $25 day of show.

Kayla Steinberg

Kayla Steinberg writes for the St. Louis Jewish Light