Israeli Mandolinist Avi Avital Plays World Cafe Live

Jacob Colon, for GPA -- If you've been to World Cafe Live (3025 Walnut St.) in University City, you know it's not your average Philadelphia music venue.

It has two levels for moving to music from all over the world. The Upstairs Live Cafe is an intimate jazz club setting, reminiscent of Dizzy's Coca-Cola Club in New York, while the Downstairs Live main stage evokes a smaller version of music halls like the Electric Factory or the Theatre of the Living Arts. Glass lamp shades of pink, red and purple hang above the bars on both floors, where you can order dishes made in-house in addition to drinks.

According to the venue's marketing coordinator, Danielle Ferrari, of the 14 shows that come through each week, local and regional bands usually play upstairs while the downstairs space features more national and international acts.

But this isn't always the case. On a Wednesday evening, while the setting sun played music with the clouds, world-class mandolinist Avi Avital wowed a crowd of no more than twenty in the Upstairs Live Cafe with beautifully dizzying melodies.

Avital, born and raised in Be'er Sheva, Israel, has performed with orchestras at Carnegie Hall, Berlin Philharmonic Hall (where he currently resides), and Forbidden City Hall in Beijing. He studied mandolin in Italy, and he is scheduled to tour in Australia this May.

In other words, Avital is as international as musicians come.

So when the virtuoso and his trio took the upstairs stage on Wednesday, April 9, I couldn't help but wonder what was going through his mind as he looked out to an audience one percent the size of a sold-out Carnegie Hall.

Once Avital began playing, he closed his eyes as he artfully blurred the line between classical, European folk and jazz. He opened them to look at band mates Uri Sharlin (accordion) and Shane Shanahan (percussion) in approval of their synchrony. When he hit an extra satisfactory note, Avital raised his head and widened his lips. It was clear that music was the only thing on his mind.

Considering World Cafe Live's mission, the contrast between Avi Avital's Carnegie-worthy skills and the intimately small audience he played for made sense.

The venue's founder, Hal Real, wanted to house "talented artists in a nurturing environment, free from distractions, taking risks and playing their guts out for an appreciative audience."

This space was built for artists like Avital to get lost in their music and bring the audience along. Because World Cafe Live strives for an atmosphere that attracts talented musicians, the artists who perform there collectively represent the world community of music.

"You'll discover stuff you probably wouldn't find on your own," says marketing coordinator Danielle Ferrari.

Though it may be a while before Avital comes back to Philadelphia, World Cafe Live's summer is looking mighty - well, worldly. Upcoming shows include Welsh multi-instrumentalist Karl Wallinger (May 30), Brazilian solo artist Rodrigo Amarante (July 1), and Brazilian music ensemble Philly Bloco (August 9). Clearly, the venue will continue to live up to its name.

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Photo courtesy of Jacob Colon.