After representing his country in a blues competition in the U.S., Israeli-born musician Ori Naftaly moved to Memphis in 2013 in search of a band to play the blues with.
“Blues is popular everywhere,” he says, citing influences such as Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and BB King. “It’s still a niche genre and I was the ambassador of blues in Israel. I moved here because I wanted to learn from the best.”
It didn’t take him long to team up with a talented group of musicians, who shared his vision of positivity and love for the blues. Combining Memphis soul with gospel blues and R&B, Southern Avenue is comprised of Tierinii Jackson on lead vocals, Tikyra Jackson on drums, Jeremy Powell on keys, Evan Sarver on bass and Naftaly on guitar.
“One of the reasons I moved to Memphis is because I love the history and the attitude it has towards making music,” Naftaly says. “We’re all influenced by the sound whether we like it or not, but we’re not focused on making Memphis music, we’re just trying to play our music.”
In 2006, the band was signed to Stax Records, the first Memphis-based band to sign with the legendary label in more than four decades. Southern Avenue saw its self-titled debut record reach No. 1 on iTunes’ Top Blues Albums in 2018, and the follow-up, “Keep On,” earned the band a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
“We write songs that mean a lot to us and whatever music comes out, it’s always from a unique journey and experience,” Naftaly says. “I’m not a traditional blues player or songwriter; blues fans that are very strict would say I’m not a blues artist, but those who aren’t into blues would classify me that way. I love blues, but am also influenced by jazz, funk, soul and Israel-influenced music.”
Since forming, Southern Avenue has performed all over the world, including 15 countries on three continents and pre-Covid, averaged more than 150 shows a year.
Thankfully, the band is happy to be back touring and looks forward to continuing its ambitious live schedule.
On Aug. 15, the band will open for Jason Mraz at The Anthem, a continuation of a tour that started earlier this summer.
“The shows with Mraz have been awesome,” Naftaly says. “We’re high-energy and feeling blessed to be able to do what we do in these difficult times. We’re looking forward to having a really great show in D.C. Our goal is to have everyone who comes to the show leave and say to themselves, ‘don’t give up,’ whatever it is they’re going through.”
Mraz and the band joined forces to write Southern Avenue’s newest song, “Move Into the Light,” an upbeat song that spreads a positive message of hope.
“We want people to feel better about their day and maybe feel encouraged and know they are not alone,” Naftaly says. “That’s what all the hard work we’ve done has been about — to bring good karma and energy to the world.”
Southern Avenue’s newest album will be released on Aug. 27, and in addition to Mraz, includes guest artists like Cody Dickinson from North Mississippi Allstars.
“We wanted to do what we wanted and take a few risks and explore our musicality,” says Naftaly, who co-produced the album along with multi-Grammy Award winner Steve Berlin. “We feel it’s the most Southern Avenue album yet.”
The pandemic kept the bandmates from getting together for many months, but when they regrouped, it was important to all not to create a “pandemic” album.
“It has nothing to do with what went on,” Naftaly says. “It’s relevant to our lives on the road and to share the message that we’ve tried to have on our other albums, which is full of energy and coming together and being the best versions of ourselves. We have so much musicality in us that is far greater than traditional blues.”
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