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Concert Review: Justin Bieber Delights Devoted Crowd in Israel

When it comes to the concert business in Israel, the country gives new meaning to the term “secondary market” -- as in, a good number of the foreign acts who agree to play there end up having second thoughts and canceling their gigs. Such was the case for Elvis Costello, who canceled two 2010 shows citing his "conscience," and the Pixies, who last year pulled the plug on a festival appearance after Israeli military fired heavily on a flotilla bound for Gaza. Macy Gray also debated a return trip to Tel Aviv, polling her Facebook fans for their take on Middle Eastern politics (she ultimately decided to honor her commitment).  

And so when it was announced that teen phenom Justin Bieber was coming to Tel Aviv’s massive Hayarkon Park, ticket sales were understandably sluggish at first. After all, who wants to deal with the hassle of a refund or the disappointed look on their young daughter’s face when Bieber, like so many others, decides to skip the highly volatile stop?

But Bieber didn’t bail and even when the Israeli paparazzi had him Tweeting the kind of frustration and annoyance that would send even the most weathered pop star packing, he kept to his word and toured the country, making it as far north as the Lebanese border and scheduled to reach as far south as the Dead Sea, hitting many of the major holy sites and even entering the West Bank, a drive many Israelis are reticent to make.    So when it came time for him to hit the stage just after 8:00 p.m. on a Thursday night, the crowd was all about one thing: appreciation. Promoters hoped attendance would reach 35,000, and thanks to Israel’s teenage population and a campaign that offered concerned parents free tickets (with purchase for their kids, naturally), it likely came close. Most of the upper lawn was not filled to capacity, but the lower rung of the field had been densely packed since 4:00, when several thousand superfans showed up for a spot up front.    The vantage point didn’t really matter, in the end. Between the giant video screens, spot-on sound and a well-orchestrated stage show that doesn’t miss a beat, Bieber delivered exactly what he’s known for: heart. Starting with the uptempo “Love Me” and “Bigger,” Bieber, who’s performed a similar version of his set list for well over a year, put forth the same energy he was getting back from the devoted crowd.    Smartly navigating both ends of the stage, he made the first of several “What’s up, Israel!” shout-outs, each received with deafening cheer, and doled out the hits one-by-one -- “Smile,” “Favorite Girl,” “Never Let You Go” -- eventually making it to the portion of the show when he always brings out a fan, leads her to a seat (in true Israeli form, a plastic chair that you’d find at the local hummus joint would do) and serenades her with the song “One Less Lonely Girl.” This chosen one seemed to have connections -- or “protecsia” as they say in Hebrew slang -- a family member in the business, perhaps? And good for her; she was clearly ready for the attention and managed to maintain her composure in what seems like an impossible to handle situation.    Snippets of Bieber’s Youtube clips followed, which had the audience singing along to his ABCs and cheering his more musical moments on the drums and guitar, both of which he demonstrated live that evening. The recently Glee-ified “Somebody To Love” brought a wardrobe change that fed nicely into a Michael Jackson tribute and the Ninja-themed “Never Say Never,” from 2010’s The Karate Kid. A quick breather allowed Bieber’s background singers, band and dancers a spot center stage. A short while after, his bassist would take on Sean Kingston’s part on “Eenie Meenie,” while music director Dan Kanter, who wailed the Israeli national anthem “Hatikva” on electric guitar at the start, would get his own song dedication on what was clearly a very special night.    To that end, perhaps the most emotional moments came at set's end, when Bieber pointed out the special significance of singing the pensive “Pray” in Israel, and during the encore, when he introduced manager Scooter Braun’s grandmother from the side of the stage and informed the crowd that she is a Holocaust survivor, a part of Bieber history -- and their own -- that these devotees undoubtedly know. It was perhaps the one awkward moment in the show, if only because the next line he uttered enthusiastically was, “Who wants to be my 'Baby?!'”    Cue: Bieber’s biggest hit, and with it, clouds of confetti and hands in the air signaling the end to a triumphant occasion, and likely the first concert most of the kids in the crowd had ever experienced. Indeed, nary a disappointed face was seen after the show when thousands streamed onto Tel Aviv’s street causing a backup of traffic for miles. For the second time that night, Bieber had them at Shalom.  

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[Update: a previous version of this story misreported that Gray had canceled her Tel Aviv performance.]