Matisyahu + Umphrey’s McGee: 9 July 2009 - Central Park SummerStage, New York
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner
The SummerStage double bill of Matisyahu and Umphrey’s McGee made for a wildly diverse spectrum of fans from hippie to orthodox Jew, both young and old. It’s because listening to jam bands (and the pre-requisite toke) are a definitive rite-of-passage for today’s youth -- and an equally enduring nostalgia trip. Studying the counterculture legacy of their parents, they understand that jam bands are the gateway dancing music for white adolescent males. But it takes time. Naturally Umphrey’s McGee played through several numbers, like “Higgins”, which was too enmeshed with dense arpeggiating guitars, before its sound ever loosened and opened up. The same applied to the dancers in the crowd. With two prolific lead guitarists -- Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger -- carrying the majority of melodies and solos, their finger-twisting riffs required some etude-like passages to get their blood flowing. By “Turn and Run”, however, the group was practically on cruise control, undulating on the same wavelength and improvising with charted efficiency. They ended their set with a cover, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” -- which made relative sense being the longest real song the Beatles composed.
After dismantling McGee’s enormous stage set up to clear space for Matisyahu and his gyrating hops and twists, his five-piece backing ensemble sonically slid into a soft jam before the man himself emerged. Perhaps no reputation precedes any other rising artist more than Matisyahu’s: A degenerate Deadhead turned Hasidic Jew turned international reggae and hip-hop success story. Donning a weathered red trucker hat, his vocals also took a few songs before they were entirely aligned with the band. As Matisyahu sang the incredibly catchy “Time of Your Song” he quickly brought out Nosson Zand who dropped a number of exuberant rhymes before ceding the stage to his mentor. Before Matisyahu’s performance I’d never seen a Hasidic Jew dance or spin as much to such heavy cadences. Throughout the night his band kept a precise but flexible groove, and incorporated a phenomenal conga player midway through. Hits like “King Without a Crown” and “Jerusalem” got wild cheers, but nothing compared to the response Matisyahu’s impressively huge stage dive received near the end. Matisyahu himself was equally pleased saying, “My grandpa would be proud.” So were all the young hippies.