Amsterdam: the IJMF semi-finals

We woke up on Thursday, October 11th in a state of nervous excitement. We knew we were only guaranteed one 15-minute set during the first morning of the festival, and that we’d have to play extremely well to be invited to play more.

The basic plan for the festival was something like this: from the 24 bands who were invited to play at the festival, 22 were able to make it. These bands were divided up into two groups of 11 bands each between the first two days of the festival. The mornings and afternoons of that Thursday and Friday were preliminary rounds–the 11 bands all got 15-minute sets in front of a live audience and panel of judges, then the judges went off to deliberate to decide upon the six bands to play in the semi-final rounds on Thursday and Friday nights, respectively. So after the first two days, 22 bands would be narrowed down to 12. From those 12 semi-finalists, six would be chosen to play in the highly advertised Grand Finale concert on Saturday evening. The winners from Saturday’s concert would then play a final concert on Sunday afternoon to close out the festival.

We roughly knew all of this information going into the first day of the competition, but we were mostly just focusing on our first morning performance. Nat was the first one over to the theater to check in and drop off our handmade three-track CDs (which looked a little funny, albeit endearing, sitting next to an assortment of full-length professionally recorded, produced, and shrink-wrapped CDs from every other band). The rest of us made it over soon after, and were herded into the “warm up room”, in which we had to be as close to silent as possible, since it was right next to the stage. We unpacked and met some of the other groups who were playing in the same morning round as us. We were quick to realize that along with being the only band from the United States, we were also among the youngest. We also met Becky, a delightful and extremely patient festival organizer and fellow American who we quickly befriended and proceeded to look for every time we had questions about what were were supposed to be doing over the next several days, which, as it turned out, was often.

Before heading out to play, we were asked to pose on camera for a Dutch television crew who was filming the entire festival, with the eventual goal of putting together a documentary about the competition. I don’t remember much from posing for them, but considering the whole band was tired and nervous, I’m sure the results were hilarious. Afterwards, we found out that luckily there was a long break for the judges right before our set, which allowed for us to warm up and sound check on stage. Entering the theater, I was surprised by how many people were in the crowd midmorning on a Thursday, including my parents (who came straight from the airport) and some distant relatives (who my parents and I were meeting for the first time, though that’s another crazy side story). The band tuned together offstage, and then went to set up. The stage crew was quick and the sound check went smoothly, and we had some extra time to play through the beginning of a couple tunes. After a few minutes we were asked to leave the stage again so we could be announced and have a big entrance. With just enough time for a quick group hug and short pep talk, we found ourselves onstage again, starting to play. We opened with our Idol Set (which can be found on our EP, and was what we played for the Boston Jewish Music Festival’s Klezmer Idol). Even though we took it a little fast (we were nervous…), it was tight and spot on, and we were clearly all energized by how well we were playing. After the Idol Set, we launched into “La Rosa”, which had been somewhat of a wild card for us in preparing for the festival, but it went smoothly and we were excited and proud of our first performance. Coming off stage we were interviewed by the Dutch TV crew about how we felt we did, and I’m sure what was captured on tape was a bunch of excited and giddy laughter, hugging, and high fives.


After putting our instruments away, we headed back to the theater to catch the final couple acts of the morning round, before everyone took a break for lunch. After lunch, we sat through the rest of the day’s set of ensembles, marveling at the diversity and overall performance level of the music and musicians. It was exhausting to sit though a string of 15-minute sets broken up by 10-minute set changes, and then to wait around in the lobby for an hour while the judges deliberated. Around 5 pm, everyone gathered in the lobby of the theater as they announced the groups moving on to the evening’s semi-final round. We were delighted to hear them announce Ezekiel’s Wheels as one of the six! (Abigale even screamed and jumped up and down, which was adorable.) Nat went off to meet with the judges and the representatives from the other semi-finalists, and the rest of us stayed in the lounge congratulating ourselves on having something exciting to report to our kickstarter backers, and chatting with the other musicians. Nat returned 20 minutes later to tell us that they wanted to hear a different set, but they requested for us to play “La Rosa” again in the evening.

With only couple hours before the evening’s concert, we rushed up to the warm up room to organize and rehearse our second set. We were very excited to get the opportunity to play both of the sets we had worked extensively to prepare, and to get to play to the full evening audience. Since we had to play “La Rosa” again, we had to alter our second set slightly to accommodate the required tune and still remain within the 15-minute time limit. We decided to open with “La Rosa”, and then go into a set of “Moldovan Wedding” into “Alexi’s Tune” and ending with our arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”.

After rehearsal, we ventured out for a quick dinner before having to return to the theater’s warm up room. We had a great time warming up before the show–our friends from Alila, who also made the finals, joined us backstage in a pre-concert impromptu jam with lots of percussion and dancing. After a few minutes, though, we were told we had to stop because the concert was starting. It was difficult to wait around in the green room to play. At this point we were exhausted from such a long day, and we were nervous, but still excited. We were closing out the first half of the show and finally, it was our turn to play, so we once again rode the elevator down to the stage, tuned backstage, had another classic group hug/pep talk, and then were announced and made our way onstage.

This evening’s concert was far better attended than the day’s preliminary rounds. We began with “La Rosa”, which went well, though we were definitely starting to show some of the day’s exhaustion. We powered through “Moldovan Wedding”, a groovy song in 7, and into “Alexi’s Tune”, which is also opened with a bowed bass solo before gradually speeding up. The crowd was friendly and loved to participate, clapping along during our build in “Alexi’s”, which certainly helped us build our energy back up. We hit the surprise transition into “Smooth Criminal” and were spot on, complete with Michael Jackson poses. The audience (and the judges) went nuts when they realized what we were playing, clapping and smiling, and we were all dancing and laughing on stage. We finished to a huge roar from the audience, leading into intermission.

During the break, we did a fair amount of networking with a number of scouts from the audience who represented festivals, venues, and recording labels, before heading back into the theater to catch the second half of the concert. All of the bands were very strong (and again, very diverse). After the concert, we found out that we wouldn’t know who was going on to the finals until Friday evening (there was still a whole second day of semi-finals, after all), but on the upside, the Israeli embassy was hosting a party in the lobby, so we ventured out for free wine and to chat more with the crowd. I was really amazed not only how much attention we were getting from the audience, but also by how friendly the other musicians were. We had a great time meeting folks, and it was nice to unwind a little bit after a long day.

Once the party at the theater wound down, we set off to try yet another local bar along with a huge stack of free postcards from the theater–one of the rewards for contributing towards our kickstarter campaign was to receive a postcard from Amsterdam, and as such, we ended up with roughly 40 postcards that we had to write. We found a quiet bar and plowed through as many postcards as we could before the bar closed, and then we sleepily ventured back to the hostel, happy that we could sleep in the next morning.

(Coming up: the rest of the IJMF!)

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