Israeli Ori Naftaly and his band Southern Avenue bring mix of soul and blues to STL

Israeli musician Ori Naftaly (left) and his band, Southern Avenue, will perform in St. Louis on June 27 at Old Rock House. Photo: David McClister

By Kayla Steinberg, Staff Writer

Our hockey team isn’t the only Blues group in St. Louis: Israeli-born guitarist, composer and producer Ori Naftaly and his band, Southern Avenue, are bringing their soul-blues blend to the Old Rock House on Thursday, June 27. The Memphis-based quartet released its sophomore album, “Keep On,” in May, and it reached No. 5 on the Billboard Top Blues Albums chart.

The band can’t wait to come to St. Louis, Naftaly said.  

“For us, St. Louis is like a second home,” he said, explaining they performed in St. Louis every couple of months when they started out in 2015. 

Naftaly describes the band’s sound as the “perfect Memphis stew.” It fuses blues with soul and funk. The songs have a “feel good vibe with a punch,” Naftaly said.

In addition to Naftaly, Southern Avenue features vocalist Tierinii Jackson; her sister, drummer and backing vocalist Tikyra Jackson; and keyboardist Jeremy Powell. New addition Evan Sarver, who plays bass, will join the band on tour.

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Writing “Keep On” took a while. Band members wrote 40 songs for the album and then narrowed the list to their favorite 12. Trademarks of the album are tracks like “Whiskey Love” and “Savior,” funky tunes featuring Tierinii Jackson’s powerful vocals.

Naftaly’s favorite is “We’re Gonna Make It.” It’s a song for their fans, Naftaly said, letting 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 blues and jazz music with his dad and fell in love.

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

Memphis blues made a big impression on Naftaly, who moved to the city in October 2013 and toured with local musicians, playing more than 200 shows in more than 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, because families across the country hosted him and gave him advice while he toured  after his initial move to the United States.

In 2016, Naftaly reached the IBC finals with Southern Avenue, this time representing Memphis. The band signed with Stax Records, part of Concord Music Group, that summer. Southern Avenue’s eponymous debut album, released in February 2017, topped the iTunes Blues charts, reached No. 6 on the Billboard Top Blues Albums chart and was in the Top 40 in Americana Radio for three months.

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

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

With millions of streams and 100,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, the band hopes to dazzle its St. Louis audience with the same soulful sound that has made it a worldwide success. Southern Avenue is just coming off an international tour to six countries in Europe and has traveled to over a dozen countries.

Southern Avenue will spend the next few months performing in cities across the United States. In November, the band will tour with the blues-rock Tedeschi Trucks Band, which will play at the Fox Theatre here July 30.