Live Review: Matisyahu

Written by: Andy Stewart

Photo courtesy: Dan Chusid (web site)

October 17, 2009 ~ Flames Central, Calgary, AB

MatisyahuI’ve known of Matisyahu since his album Live at Stubb’s and have respected him and his music from the moment I first heard him. For his recent performance at Flames Central, however, I brought along three people that had no clue about who he is, or what type of music he performed (to say nothing about how to pronounce his name).

In case you, faithful reader, are not terribly knowledgeable about this particular artist allow me to provide you a more detailed explanation than the one I gave my cohorts on Saturday night. When asked what kind of artist he was I simply said ‘reggae’, leaving out the ‘tall lanky white guy’ and ‘Hasidic Jew’ parts as I wanted to see how they’d react to him.

Born Matthew Miller in Pennsylvania, Matisyahu (the Biblical pronunciation of his name) found his voice fusing his Hasidic Jewish roots to reggae, rock and hip hop. After a year of following Phish, it was that band that helped launch his career at Bonaroo 2005 by inviting him to take part in their gig.

For the show in question the night started with a set by Dub Trio who is impressive to say the least. After pounding, and I do mean pounding, out a 20+ minute set the three members (2/3 Canadian) took a brief break only to re-emerge a short time later to hammer through the entire main set as the backing band. At no point did it seem even remotely difficult for any of them.

The first song “Sea” was delivered in what I can only describe as a subdued style, which was in contrast to what I had expected after listening to his live album. That first song however was not indicative of what was to come because by the third song, “We Walk”, Matisyahu was obviously comfortable and his command of the stage strengthened from there.

Matisyahu’s lost year as a dropout following Phish came through in most of his set, where he relied heavily on his band to take a 3 minute song into the stadium rock territory of 10+ minutes more often than not. The entire set covered a good mix of old and new songs, with the current single “One Day” from his album Light getting the biggest response out of the crowd. I have to admit that having heard the new album prior to the show, no song in particular stood out to me but watching the reaction of the crowd once he hit the chorus for the first time was powerful to say the least.

At times the extension of the songs from standard length to jam session length caused a drop off in attention by the crowd, with only the true devotees staying true throughout. While each song was impressive, some became a test of endurance that took away from the overall enjoyment. A perfect example was the start of the encore where he gave a lengthy beat box demonstration followed by a considerable instrumental by the band before launching into “King without a Crown” and finishing with a stage dive into the crowd.

All-in-all the concert was good, for the initiated and uninitiated alike. The friends I went with all enjoyed the songs, but found it hard to stay focused for the longer ones. Thankfully when our minds started to wander we only had to look to the side of the stage at the middle-aged man shaking his maracas to lift our spirits and help us push on. Literally, this guy shook maracas painted like soccer balls for the entire set.  Anywhere else it would have seemed incredibly out of place, but in its own surreal way it seemed to fit perfectly.

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