Matisyahu / Feb. 6, 2006 / Seattle (Showbox)
On a clear and cool evening in Seattle, the winter rain clouds took a night off while reggae phenom Matisyahu took the stage for a sold-out, all-ages show at Seattle's Showbox. From singing to rappingOn a clear and cool evening in Seattle, the winter rain clouds took a night off while Hasidic reggae phenom Matisyahu took the stage for a sold-out, all-ages show at Seattle's Showbox.
The band got things going in a similar fashion to its 2005 recording, "Live at Stubbs" (Epic/JDUB). Matisyahu's bandmates (guitarist Aaron Dugan, bassist Josh Werner and drummer Jonah David) opened the set with "Sea to Sea," a relaxed reggae rhythm for the artist to make a delayed entrance in front of an audience ripe with anticipation. Once front and center, Matisyahu started things off with a soulful religious homage in both Hebrew and English, and took a brief pause to say hello before heading into the first full song, "Refuge."
If you've never seen Matisyahu, he's something to behold. It's the classic Hasidic look, bespectacled and wearing a nondescript suit while sporting a hearty beard dangling somewhere between Tommy Chong and ZZ Top. In truth, he's like many other observant, orthodox Jews that you might see riding the subway in Brooklyn. But then you have to remind yourself that you're not coming from temple; you're actually at a reggae show. And this guy has got it going on. From singing to rapping to beat box, Matisyahu is the freshest voice in American reggae -- he just happens to be Hasidic.
The band proceeded into "Fire of Heaven/Alter of Earth," a funky groove calling up classic reggae themes of spirituality: "Fire descends from on high in the shape of a lion / Burn a sacrifice of pride and ride on to mountain Zion." Instead of singing praise to Jah and Rasta, Matisyahu has traded in the dreadlocks and marijuana common to reggae for a yarmulke and Torah portions as the source of his lyrical musings. In fact, many of his songs include a verse or two of Hebrew, you know, just to keep it real. But like most reggae artists, Matisyahu bears his soul on his sleeve and finds a nerve that taps into universal, crossover appeal for all audiences.
By the aptly titled "Exaltation," the crowd was at full tilt, as Matisyahu led them in a melodious sing-a-long. On "Warrior," the band opened up as David took an extended and frantic drum solo. Later in the set, Matisyahu got in on the rhythmic rumblings with a mind-boggling solo beat box performance in the midst of his anthem, "King Without a Crown."
Afterwards, the rest of the band kept the mood going with an extended instrumental jam -- presumably as Matisyahu refreshed his throat offstage -- that wound its way from a bass solo by Werner into a frenzied guitar solo by Dugan. Before long, Matisyahu regained the stage and had microphone in hand to close out the anthemic single.
The band went on to another sing-a-long favorite, "Chop 'em Down," calling up the biblical story of Moses and the Jews' exodus from slavery in Egypt. Refreshingly absent: images of slow Passover Seders and matzoh-meal brownies -- cultural mores mostly known to those of us in the tribe.
An encore of "Heights" put the finishing touches on a wild winter night in Seattle. Only time will tell if Matisyahu and company's music will outlast the inherent novelty of a Hasidic front man. But there's no questioning the group's legitimate talent, which should keep it simmering in a pan instead of flashing (yes, I quoted MCA. How can I write this article without a reference to the Beastie Boys?).
Local hip-hop artists the Blue Scholars opened the show. With O.G. on the microphone and Sabzi on the turntables, the duo warmed up the crowd with a 45-minute set. Sabzi mixed rhythms of head-nodding nuance and booty-shaking beats while O.G. kept the flow going on the microphone. The lyrics touched on everything from social justice to the Iraq war to the questionable officiating during the Seahawks' recent trip Super Bowl.