Hanukkah Receives Kosher Pop Welcome
Matisyahu deployed what may be the only large, mirrored, rotating dreidel in show business — a Jewish answer to a disco ball — at Webster Hall on Sunday night, the first night of Hanukkah. It was also the first of eight New York City shows for Matisyahu in his third annual Festival of Lights series, bringing different opening acts and guests each night. A large menorah was set up for a mid-concert lighting ceremony, with the blessings declaimed in Hebrew by an audience volunteer.
Matisyahu, who was born Matthew Miller, sings explicitly devotional songs about God, Moshiach (the Messiah) and Orthodox Jewish identity. By setting them to reggae, rock and hip-hop beats, and after working his way up the jam-band circuit, he also reaches listeners with their minds on more secular pursuits, like dancing and drugs. Simcha Levenberg, the M.C. who introduced him, drew big laughs with jokes about marijuana and LSD, although Matisyahu’s song “King Without a Crown” insisted, “If you’re trying to stay high, then you’re bound to be low.”
Matisyahu has built a career on analogies between Rastafarian roots reggae and Hasidic songs. Both are concerned with faith and survival struggles and have lyrics phrased in Biblical allusions; both draw on modal scales and melismatic vocal lines that can sound Middle Eastern. Near the end of the concert Matisyahu sang long, cantorial phrases while rocking back and forth, as if davening, or praying. Yet if his lyrics weren’t so clear about their references to Jewish history and the majesty of God, most of the time Matisyahu would simply be one more reggae-loving rocker.
In “Jerusalem,” which drew heartfelt singalongs, he worries about assimilation, singing, “Cut off the roots of your family tree/Don’t you know that’s not the way to be.” But the roots of his music are Afro-Caribbean and African-American. He uses Jamaican reggae and dancehall toasting, sometimes delivered with a Jamaican accent; he also uses hip-hop cadences and showed off his vocal beatboxing.
His band also segues into rock, for chiming marches that borrow their idealistic sound from U2. Matisyahu is less concerned with a musical heritage than with a religious one.
Album by album Matisyahu has expanded his music. Along with basic roots reggae he now uses faster, tongue-twisting dancehall toasting and the electronic beats and brooding chords of hip-hop. And he’s looking farther: Matisyahu joined Crystal Method, the thumping, rock-tinged electronica duo that opened the show, to sing and rap on a song from their next album, due in March.
Matisyahu rarely improves on his sources. His voice is thin and sometimes nasal, closer to Jack Johnson than to Bob Marley or Sting; his rhymes can be as awkward as they are earnest. But his band — which was augmented, for a few songs, by an Israeli oud player — carries simple vamps through multiple transformations, from meditations to shredding guitar solos. It’s music for believers, with a groove for everyone else.