Music festivals are a nightmare. They're the big-box retailers of culture, designed to accommodate teeming hordes of wasted twentysomethings in Native American headdresses who wanna party first and listen to music second. But, as anyone who has been stuck in a Best Buy or a Walmart can tell you, even the crappiest landfills can contain buried treasure. By virtue of volume alone, any big music fest worth its salt has at least one hidden gem waiting to be discovered, a band that makes all the hassle worthwhile.
Case in point: There I was at the 2014 Austin Psych Fest this past May. It was 98 degrees with a blazing sun in a cloudless sky and high winds, like God's own hair dryer was trying to blow the festival grounds right off the face of the earth. Even in the barest of clothing, most people were drenched in sweat, and practically everyone had scarves over their faces to keep from inhaling the dust that swirled around in the hot air. Then I saw him, standing next to an old music-booker friend of mine who'd recently moved to Texas from Tel Aviv: Charlie Megira, dressed in a full black tuxedo, black wraparound sunglasses, and a miles-high black pompadour, with nary a drop of perspiration on his brow. He was basically the coolest person I'd ever seen. And that was before I'd even seen him play.
By the time this skinny-Elvis-looking Israeli dude and his band hit the stage with their traditional surf, rockabilly, and '50s/'60s-style rock 'n' rollers that sometimes slipped into noise punk, I was speechless. HERE WAS MY GEM! Megira, who hails from Beit She'an in Northern Israel, sang in Hebrew and English, sometimes crooning, sometimes screaming like a '70s UK punk. Their brand of retro felt totally new thanks to this beautifully strange, internationalist reimagining of familiar genres.
Megira is now on his first-ever US tour. He answered my questions while his band, the Beit She'an Valley Hillbillies, ate dinner at a vegan restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina.
What were the best and worst parts of growing up in a historical city like Beit She'an?
The best thing in Beit She'an is the people who live there. There is nothing I can say is "the worst." King Solomon said that if there is a heaven, then Beit She'an is the gate where you will enter it. Actually, though, there was something funny at the entrance of the city not too long ago—a guy named Kookie Bazrawie covered up the sign that said "Welcome to Beit She'an" with a sign that said "Welcome to Texas."
What music did you listen to there when you were a little kid?
A lot of Moroccan celebration music, like Algerian singer Salim Halali and the late, great Moroccan Israeli singer Jo Amar.
Does any place you've seen in America remind you of your hometown?
What's the most shocking American thing you've seen?
The homeless people in Albuquerque, New Mexico—so many homeless people.
If you could play anywhere in the world, where would you play?
Mecca, in Saudi Arabia.
Most of your previous rockabilly material was sung in Hebrew. Is it strange to sing in English?
On this tour, I sing in English, and also in Japanese, Arabic, German, and the holy Hebrew language. I feel pretty comfortable with any kind of language. Rockabilly is all about dealing with the normal in an exotic manner. I think everything that diverges from this rule should be considered to be a crime against rock 'n' roll.
You have some excellent love songs. Do you believe in true love? Is it a real thing?
The true lover is burning on his own fuel. There's nothing more real than that. It's so easy to fall in love.
You kept saying "Ahala is sababa!" between songs when I saw you at Psych Fest—what does that mean?
I'm sorry, but it's still too early to deal with the mathematics behind this equation.*
* "Ahala" and "sababa" are interchangeable Israeli slang for "cool" and "awesome."