Concert review: Hammersmith Palais, London
Hammersmith Palais, London
Thursday May 25, 2006
Pioneer or just a novelty? ... Matisyahu. Photograph: Chris Pizzello/AP
Matisyahu's billing as America's biggest reggae singer is less hype than faint praise: the US has always proved diffident to reggae. Bob Marley never made the top 40 there; indeed, its beaches are among the last in the world where you won't be assailed by pot-head berks singing Three Little Birds. Yet the vast US sales for the former Matthew Miller's new album indicate the goyim appeal of his combination of pop-reggae and Hasidic Judaism. Tonight's audience in London, however, seem drawn by Miller's Judaism rather than their deep-rooted love for pop-reggae: there are certainly more yarmulkes here than you would find at a Shaggy gig. There's not much crowd interaction - Miller cuts an oddly remote figure, perhaps a result of his rabbi forbidding his stagediving, lest he touch a woman - but a big-up for Hashem gets a loud cheer. As he ploughs through Lord Raise Me Up and Jerusalem, the latter interpolated with Matthew Wilder's euro-pop hit Break My Stride, you understand why US audiences have taken Miller to their hearts. The most striking thing about his music - other than the fact that it's being sung by a man wearing a prayer belt - is how American it sounds. There are commercial AOR choruses and lengthy guitar solos and bursts of tricksy drumming borrowed from the Grateful Dead and Phish. He has also borrowed the jam bands' habit of going on a bit: he's a good human beatboxer, but he human-beatboxes for so long that you begin to wish that his rabbi had forbidden that as well. But the crowd love it, leaving the question of whether Matisyahu is a pioneer - a man who has discovered a previously untapped market - or merely an intriguing novelty hanging in the air.