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Friday, September 15, 2006

Matisyahu, Hammersmith Palais, London

Matisyahu, Hammersmith Palais, London

By James McNair (The Independent) Published: 25 May 2006

He has been called a "loveable oddball" and "the most intriguing reggae artist in the world." He is Matisyahu, aka Matthew Paul Miller, a bearded Hasidic Jew who performs wearing a black suit and a broad-brimmed black hat over a yarmulke. Matisyahu sings in English with bits of Yiddish and Hebrew, and cites Rabbi Simon Jacobsen's Towards A Meaningful Life as an inspiration. There's something pleasantly jarring about seeing someone who looks like an anxiety figure in a Woody Allen reverie fronting a band the kids are "down" with.

Strictly speaking, Matisyahu is not a "classic reggae"-type artist, though, for while he and his band clearly know their King Tubby from their queen Marcia Griffiths, they are also partial to rocking out in a style reminiscent of the Red Hot Chili Peppers jamming with the Grateful Dead.

The 26-year-old, Pennsylvania-born Matisyahu has confessed to being a Deadhead in his youth, but that was before he embraced Orthodox Judaism and began studying Torah in earnest. It was also around this time that he began listening to Bob Marley and Shlomo Carlebach.

All of this has had a wonderful, cross-pollinating effect on Matisyahu's music. Tonight, selections such as "Jerusalem" and "Exaltation" are a winning mix of devotional song, dancehall reggae, and sticky dub impasse, our host switching between a toasting vocal style, and gesticulating, syllable-crammed raps.

It is fortunate that his look is so strikingly incongruous, because his band mates are without discernible charisma. You can't fault their chops, though, and the moments when guitarist Aaron Dugan plays fluid, African-style arpeggios are exhilarating. Like bassist Josh Werner and drummer Jonah David, Dugan is also agreeably fluent in the earthy language of dub.

What's clear is that this is feelgood - and indeed be good - music. And you have to applaud the way that his sound seems to unite the ethnically and religiously diverse, as evidenced by this audience's mixed-bag of yarmulke, beanie hat and baseball cap wearers.

Musically speaking, the best moment comes when the band down tools, and Matisyahu showcases his fluent, rapid-fire beatboxing chops. Not quite Rahzel, perhaps, but kosher all the same. As the band encores with "Youth", the anthemic title track from Matisyahu's second album, a stranger taps me on the shoulder, then hands me a drink because I'm "working". It all adds to the "one city under a groove" mood.


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