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Friday, October 13, 2006

Matisyahu flies on faith, not roots music ability

Matisyahu flies on faith, not roots music ability

Chicago Sun-Times, Mar 6, 2006 by Brian Orloff

MATISYAHU At the Riviera Theatre

When current young reggae sensation Matisyahu performed Saturday concert at the Riviera, he brought with him a tremendous amount of hype -- and a posse of Hasidic Jews. An orthodox Jew himself, Matisyahu (born Matthew Miller), 26, underlined his faith in his jam- oriented, roots music, which is both a strength and a liability.

Shuffling onstage Saturday night -- well after the Sabbath, of course -- Matisyahu and his three-piece band, Roots Tonic, unveiled more than an hour and a half of spiritually colored though musically homogenous tunes. His set drew frequently from his latest album, "Youth," due in stores Tuesday. While the album is often an enticing affair, boasting dynamic and even innovative arrangements, in concert, Matisyahu sounded nothing like the commanding, vibrant artist many claim he is. Still, fervent fan reaction alone -- and Saturday's captivated audience was diverse in ages and cultures -- speaks volumes.

What is it about Matisyahu that connects with crowds? Perhaps fans relish his earnest professions of devotion. They cannot simply revere him for his stage presence: A listless, often immobile performer, Matisyahu's wooden demeanor hardly would inspire any converts, and Saturday's monotonous set benefitted little from Matisyahu's meek band, a poor sound mix and frequent hiccups in pacing -- a rave-up followed tedious breaks and unnecessary jam sessions.

Now, back to those lyrics: There's no doubting Matisyahu's sincere commitment to Judaism. Onstage, he donned modest garb -- a black hat, long black coat, simple white-collared shirt and black pants -- and upheld traditional Jewish law and practice in both his tour scheduling (no Friday night shows, for instance) and offstage behavior. But generally his lyrics suggest little more than stale platitudes, sentiments universal enough to come from any reggae artist. Consider this nugget from "Fire of Heaven/Alter of Earth," performed midway through the set: "One pair of eyes/ But see two different things/One person cries/But the other one sings."

Interestingly, Matisyahu fused the strongest connection when he specifically invoked Judaism, which he did during many Hebrew chants spliced throughout the show. The purity of his ululating delivery, his earnest articulations of spirituality, translated emotionally, despite language barriers. Understandably worried about being pigeonholed as a novelty act -- "Hey, did you hear the one about the Orthodox Jew reggae star?" -- Matisyahu must delicately balance these winning integrations of tradition with his more generically spiritual and uninteresting poetry.

Though Matisyahu ostensibly possessed the repertoire -- his album includes a flurry of infectious tunes -- and thus the power to transcend novelty-act status, Saturday night he lacked vocal strength and musical adventurism. Even the anthemic "Youth," his latest single, plodded in concert, weighed by a sludgy sound mix and his anemic, rapid-fire delivery. His piercing call to action, "Young man/Control in your hands/Slam your fist on the table/And make your demands," sank beneath a rippling, sirenlike guitar riff, furrowed away beneath a cavalcade of crowd noise and a menacing backbeat.

Impressive as all the noise was at times, applause, like hype, fades. And then what?


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