Matisyahu: 3 November 2009 - Chicago

[9 December 2009]

By Dan Hyman

Everyone had that one friend, you know, the tall skinny white guy who thought he could flow? This was probably Matisyahu as a teenager. Today, this occurrence is virtually inevitable. Hip-Hop culture makes its way into the suburbs like a bad case of the swine flu. Upon first hearing of the orthodox Jewish reggae-toasting human beatbox- the kind of Jewish boy my Bubbe would give a resounding “Mazel Tov”-let’s just say skepticism was in the air.

Three albums deep, repping a new single that provides schmaltzy background filler for a 2010 Winter Olympics commercial and the recent news he ditched his Hasidic Jewish affiliation, Matthew Miller, as Matis is formally named, on the surface seemed to have been put in a choke hold by the music biz. His live performance at the House of Blues, however, gave any naysayers a proverbial kick in the groin. Aside from some “choice” guest appearances, the bearded throwback to Jimmy Cliff, turned what once appeared to be nothing short of a shtick, into a full-blown cathartic ganja-aided experience.

If saluting reggae is your forte, it’s all about the vibe. Sure it helps if you’ve got the lyrics, the flow and the delivery to back it up, but essentially one wants to close his or her eyes and be transported to a sandy beach in San Tropez, spliff in hand, cares drifting away like Tom Hanks’ pet volleyball Wilson in Castaway. Matisyahu got this memo. With a purple sheen glimmering throughout the intimate venue, his three-piece band laid low with a Pink Floyd-esque “On the Run” style mood-filler, before Matisyahu strutted to center stage and began flowing to “Chop Em’ Down” off his highly-lauded, yet difficult to locate, debut LP Shake Off the Dust…Arise

Matisyahu’s stage presence is quite intriguing. Mysterious, sultry and evocative, the Talis-donning spiritual crooner bops his way about the stage, rhythmically jiving to the Rastafari-inspired beat, his eyes piercing the crowd in an eerily robotic fashion. One begins to wonder where the soaring voice comes from; it’s both fascinating and oddly puzzling when you see his mouth grip the mic and witness the powerful sound that escapes from his lips. Nonetheless, Matisyahu’s passion is inescapable and draws you into his chilled-out web.

On newer riffs, like “One Day” and “Thunder” off his recent LP Light, Matisyahu raised his voice far above his normal whisper, gripping the reins of his vocal ability. With organ runs, swampy guitar riffs and Daft Punk-y electronica looming behind, Matisyahu kills. The diverse throng of rowdy fans responded with roaring approval, although one must be sure to refrain themselves from getting annoyed with the drunken frat boy who yells, “MAATISSSYAHUUU,” which naturally stabs a dagger through the mellow moment.

Matisyahu played all his cards right Tuesday night, except for his choices of musical guests. A Slim-Shady Mini-Me rapper joined him onstage midway through the set, and then proceeded to peddle his CDs to fans during the encore. Opening act Trevor Hall, a dreadlocked, acoustic strummer whom Matis likely met at an ashram, or more likely an art exhibit, provided the low point of the show with an awkward lyrical poem. Thankfully, this strange performance was followed immediately by Matisyahu busting into an astounding beatbox chock full of scats and scuds that hit ridiculously hard. The air was taken out of the room, as Matis freewheeled from his beatbox into “King Without A Crown”, a fitting choice of closer, seeing as the Hashem-praising inspirer has been the cornerstone of Matisyahu’s repertoire since his breakout live LP, Live At Stubbs.

Matisyahu is certainly not a fad. He’s got the record sales and live attendance to prove it. The talent is there, and now it’s time for him to hone in on his craft. One thing is certain; with peaceful aura intact, this skinny Caucasian vibes with the best.

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