Review: Steve Lieberman, the Gangsta Rabbi/Blast-O-Rama
Steve Lieberman, the Gangsta Rabbi/Blast-O-Rama
To really understand what makes veteran singer Steve Lieberman, the Gangsta Rabbi tick musically, one needs to take a close look at the early years of punk rock. A slick, commercialized, stylized version of pop-punk enjoyed great commercial success in the 1990s and 2000s thanks to the emo trend, but early punk as envisioned by the Sex Pistols in the United Kingdom or Black Flag, Fear, the Dead Boys and the Germs in the United States was anything but slick. It was raw, crude, primal and totally in-your-face. And that type of mindset is very much at work on Blast-O-Rama, which Lieberman recorded in 2015. Listening to the noisy sensory assault of “The Double Clutch,” “Astroland 415” or “Bassett Hound Pull-Toy,” it is evident that Lieberman (who turned 57 on June 21, 2015) could care less about mainstream success and still identifies with the raw, defiant spirit of late 1970s and early 1980s punk.
When those who are unfamiliar with Lieberman’s background hear him call himself the Gangsta Rabbi, they might assume that Blast-O-Rama offers some type of fusion of hip-hop and Jewish music (perhaps klezmer). And there have, in fact, been experimental Jewish artists who brought together hip-hop and klezmer elements (David Krakauer, for example). But that isn’t the type of thing that Lieberman is going for on “Transfusion Pole,” “Militia Man,” “Suki Sukanya” or the title track. And even though he identifies strongly with the spirit of early punk, it would be inaccurate to describe Blast-O-Rama as the work of a punk purist or someone who is trying to sound exactly like the Sex Pistols in 1977 or Black Flag in 1980. Rather, these jagged, distorted performances are best described as a mixture of punk, metal and industrial rock. And Lieberman incorporates elements of marching band music and ska as well.
Quite a few industrial artists have used technology not to smooth out their rough edges, but to clobber the listener. And Lieberman the Gangsta Rabbi, taking a cue from those industrial agitators, is not shy about clobbering the listener.
According to his publicity bio, Lieberman has been battling cancer since September 2011. A wide variety of musicians, over the years, have used music to cope with life-threatening illnesses, and the results were often contemplative, introspective and wistful. But Lieberman, on the other hand, keeps things harsh and abrasive on “The Popsicle Song,” “The Whole of the Moon” and other tracks. Having a major illness has not caused Lieberman to mellow musically: listening to “Transfusion Pole” or “Big Bad Carburetor 429,” it is evident that Lieberman is determined to rock as loudly and aggressively as ever.
Lieberman functions as a one-man band on Blast-O-Rama, which he produced himself. Traditionally, punk and metal have consisted of vocals, guitar, bass and drums. But on Blast-O-Rama, Lieberman plays not only standard punk and metal instruments, but also, wind instruments that include trombone, trumpet and flute. One might think of the trombone or the trumpet as instruments that are more appropriate for Tommy Dorsey tributes than for metal, punk or hardcore, but Blast-O-Rama demonstrates that they can work perfectly well in a loud, angry, guitar-heavy rock setting. Lieberman does not use wind instruments to make himself sound more polished; he uses them to add to the sensory assault. And in fact, polish is the last thing that he is going for on “The Popsicle Song,” “CC Sabathia” or “Driving a Stick Shift with a Hernia.” There are no signs of Lieberman softening his rough edges, which is a big part of this album’s brutal, uncompromising charm. Lieberman does not reach out to the mainstream on Blast-O-Rama; he proudly and defiantly rejects it.
Musicians as extreme as Lieberman are an acquired taste, to be sure. Anyone who complains about how noisy or abrasive these performances are totally misses the point: Lieberman thrives on primal energy, not polish. And those who have a taste for the extreme will find that his primal energy continues to serve him well on Blast-O-Rama.
Review by Alex Henderson
3.5 stars out of 5