Reinvention is often a result of failure: a Charlie Sheen, an Elliot Spitzer, or an Anthony Weiner. But for Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae and hip-hop lyricist, reinvention and evolution are a welcomed part of the ride.
On a recent Tuesday in September, Matisyahu headlined a packed Hollywood Palladium, accompanied by The Dirty Heads, Pacific Dub and Doors.
The Palladium is a unique venue; it looks like an old hotel ballroom. The generically upholstered chairs and tables were traded for a sizeable stage and a substantial sound system, creating an ideal place for the night’s festivities. The second act, Pacific Dub, from Huntington Beach, CA, showcased a blend of reggae inspired beats with the melodies and guitar notes of hard rock. The theme this night was reggae-rock-hip hop and Pacific Dub successfully showcased the different sides of the combination, pleasing most of the eclectic crowd, which ranged from teens to grandparents and music lovers of every genre.
Continuing the reggae-rock theme was The Dirty Heads, the Sublime-influenced band from Orange County, CA. The group seamlessly transitioned from reggae to hard rock and back, throughout their set. Lead singer Jared Watson bounced around the stage, spitting hits “Spread Too Thin” and “Cabin By The Sea” off their newly released sophomore album Cabin By The Sea, as well as “Lay Me Down” off their debut album Any Port In A Storm.
Watson fluidly handed verses off to lead guitarist and vocalist Dustin Bushnell, who counters Watson’s melodies with succinct and technical verses. The band presents an interesting juxtaposition switching from pure reggae inspiration, to tracks inspired by Sublime, Beastie Boys and other hard-hitting bands. Towards the last leg of their set, Matisyahu appeared on stage for a cameo in “Dance All Night,” which, after a delayed reaction, got the crowd going.
For anyone who last saw Matisyahu in full Hasidic garb, he was unrecognizable. He shaved his beard, lost his Kepot and traded his suit and tzitzit for a V-neck tee, jeans and neon green kicks. His style has transformed from a Brooklyn Hasidim to a 20-something from the Upper West Side. He sang a few verses of “Dance All Night” then descended backstage, teasing the crowd and saving himself for later. The Dirty Heads finished their set as everyone readied for Matisyahu, the east coast transplant, to take the stage.
As his band took the stage, backed by ever-changing strobe lights, the hype in the room built with the beat. A few minutes later, Matisyahu walked to the corner of the stage, partially hidden by the massive speaker system, and took everything in. With his Kanye-like shades, he brought back memories of Andy Samberg singing “I’m On A Boat” and “Dick In A Box.” As unrecognizable as Matisyahu was physically, the man behind the music, spitting rhymes and beatboxing at unparalleled speeds is alive and well.
As he took the stage, the crowd roared as he dove into “Crossroads,” off his fourth album, Spark Seeker. The track blends a reggae backing with electronic and a hint of dubstep, chronicling his journey so far (from a “Phish-Head” to drugs to devout Judaism to stardom). All of these events have clearly informed his music, which often exhibits a meditative and therapeutic foundation as the artist attempts to process everything around him. Listening to the song feels like you are moving in slow motion, free of gravity. The track has hints of Cali P, the reggae artist.
Matisyahu flawlessly transitioned into “Sunshine,” a more pop-y, upbeat song, which has seen plenty of airplay across the FM radio waves. But as mainstream as “Sunshine” is, the song still contains the progression and musicality of his other work. However, the qualities that defined Matisyahu (his full-bodied and fluid voice and religion-inspired lyrics) aren’t entirely present. Who he is speaking to in his newer works, specifically his last two albums, has evolved. Where his freshman and sophomore albums were constantly interacting with god and Jewish tradition, his last two albums attempt to connect more with humanity and those directly around him.
The show continued with “Time Of Your Song” and “Youth” off of his sophomore album Youth. Matisyahu stage presence is hard to fathom. He is visibly relaxed on stage, arguably exhibiting little stage presence at all, but the crowd couldn’t care less. Matisyahu performs for the music, and that’s why people see him. As for the band, their stage presence is similar to the name. Matisyahu runs the show; the band hangs in the background, providing the core and intricacies of the reggae and hip-hop backing.
Just past the halfway mark, the band transitioned into the intricate and spiritual “Darkness Into Light.” The track starts with a mix of bongos, synths, grungy bass and beatboxing. Ten seconds in, Matisyahu drops in with his super syncopated lyrics, his voice fluctuating and molding with the beat. The rapid verse bursts into the drawn out and progressive chorus. I’ll be by your side when nighttime it runs on/ And the children they ride high/ I’ll be standing on the sun/ Burn into the light, burn into the sun. The chorus quickly evaporates to silence, the beat kicks in, and the syncopated lyrics resume. The track is a throwback to the original Matisyahu, full of optimism and questions, from his debut at Stubs, in Austin Texas. He hasn’t lost his old self, as much as evolved.
The show continued with “Searchin” off his newest album. The beginning harnesses some of his humble, killer beatboxing roots, but quickly turns Akon and Sean Paul like. Regardless, the song is catchy and nowhere as bad as some of the previously mentioned musicians. But this new style creates a free-falling sensation, as if we are with the artist as he processes everything around him.
Around this time, Matisyahu ditched his sunglasses, giving the audience their first unobstructed view of the artist. He also seemed looser, looking like he finally broke in his shoes. The band started to really play transitions and bridges, drawing them out and jamming for what seemed like a few songs, but ended up being a single track. (Matisyahu actually left in the middle and returned minutes later, while the band was still jamming.)
The jam ended with a flawless transition into “King Without A Crown,” the smash hit off his debut album. The reggae kicked right back in and everyone watched as Matisyahu rapped the religion-heavy lyrics like a pro. Possibly the most interesting aspect of the artist’s early work was that the listener could either examine exactly what Matisyahu was saying (about religion, humanity), or sit back and enjoy the sound of everything. Proof of this was that the room was grooving, both on stage and offm regardless of background or ethnicity. Between verses, Matisyahu loosens up by dancing around the stage, showcasing his unique movements. His style is somewhat confined spatially, but loose physically. His moves are casual, often looking like he wants to say Fuck It and let loose, but doesn’t, as if someone is watching.
As the song hit the bridge, the band took off into a progressive and intense jam. Meanwhile, Matisyahu stayed towards the back of the stage, surveying the crowd. Someone towards the front raised a “Matisyahu jump here” sign with a giant red target on it. Matisyahu eyed the sign and nodded slyly. He turned his attention back to the band, waiting for the ideal time. Moments later, he took a few steps back, pointed into the crowd, ran and dove into the sea of supporters. The jump itself was impressive; the gap was at least seven feet. Matisyahu surfed the crowd as they carried him into the middle of the Palladium. As if the moment wasn’t surreal enough, he decided to stand up, using the audience’s hands as support, effectively doubling his already towering height of six-foot four.
Matisyahu slowly fell down and the crowd carried him back to the stage where he continued the Israelite-inspired track. The song wrapped up the official set, but instead of leaving then retuning for the encore, the band continued into their reggae-pop anthem, “One Day.”
Matisyahu took a swig of water as the band dove into the song, the returned to the front to lead the track. About midway through, Matisyahu looked to his left and nodded his head, giving the signal. Before anyone knew what was going on, people started jumping the barricades and propelling themselves on stage. First it was five people, then twenty, then fifty, with more pouring over every second. Close to a minute later, half of the Palladium was on stage, cameras and phones in hand, snapping pictures while hugging and standing next to the artist, as he continued the song smiling.
The massive group hug Matisyahu created is a testament to his loyal following and the deep admiration he commands. His humble roots, intricate and wide-ranging songs resonate with an incredibly diverse audience that keeps coming back. Matisyahu is the best he has ever been, taking his reggae roots and weaving in modern musical elements and his ever-changing wisdom. The union between new and old is one that the artist continues to explore. It keeps his music exciting and his fans coming back, beard or not.