The Conspiracy

Critics hit Matisyahu, he hits the road: a night in Grand Rapids

Photo by Lindsay Baker

The last few weeks have been mixed for Matisyahu: from a successful album release, to the controversy surrounding his recent re-liberalizing. On his official Facebook page, the reggae star has started responding to critics who haven’t taken too kindly to his ditching the kippah and tzitzit and, it seems, the Orthodox way of life. On July 24, Matis had this to say:

“Please people, I love you. Just chill with all the judgements. My heart aches every time I read this stuff. I want to go on my Facebook page and connect with people with out reading the garbage. If my music ever gave you anything I hope it’s to be more kind, less judgemental and more accepting. Shalom.
Matis”

It seems like the poor guy’s getting a lot of hate, or taking whatever hate he’s received personally. So it was touching come last Saturday night in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to see such an outpouring of love with so little reservation from his audience. In fact, despite his Orthodox critics, it’s pretty clear that the bond between Matis and non-Orthodox, and even non-Jewish fans (let’s face it: the majority of his fanbase), has strengthened somehow. There was a sense of camaraderie in the air when Matis finally took the stage three hours into the evening. Perhaps the wall created by his Chasidic look has been torn down to make way for an audience connection that’s more organic somehow, and hopefully just as, if not more so, authentic for Matis himself.

Doors opened at 7, and after two short, but lively opening acts — the soulful, charming Tony LaJoye Trio, and the conscious, out-of-the-box Rick Chyme, both of which deserve some love for their energy and skill — and a bit of a wait time following the second act, Matis strutted on-stage at approximately 10:05, showing little to none of the hurt he shared online.

Photo by John Wofford

Let’s get the big question out of the way: Matisyahu’s career is fine. His live show cements that more than any of his records ever could. Of all the acts, big and small, I’ve seen take the stage through the years, Matis is one of the most consistently electric, engaging and plain damn fun of them all. For all his cornball aesthetics in the studio, especially the way his music struggles between being socially conscious and straight-up cheesy, something about his odd mixture of U2-and-Marley-isms works on stage.

Opening with the first track from his latest album, “Crossroads,” Matis gave Grand Rapids a solid set of new tracks, old favorites, extended improvisational jams… and yeah, some beat boxing. Since I own both of his live projects, I’m pretty familiar with the ways he turns tight four-minute tunes into opportunities for each of his band mates, the Dub Trio, to shine. Last night, “Darkness into Light” was the best of that bunch: a perfect piece of calculated chaos that layered each instrument’s sounds exquisitely on top of each other — complete with blazing lights and sound-F/X. By the end of that track, when Matis returned to “Stop, drop and roll,” our heads were pounding. Folks in front and back were dancing with partners in gloriously hippie fashion. It’s pretty safe to say none of those folks were shomer negiah.

Photo by John Wofford

Another element worth noting was the proud Judaism on display– or at least, the proud display of Jewish iconography. Besides myself, I only saw one other guy decked in a kippah, but Stars of David, hamsas, and more were on plenty of tee and muscle shirts, not to mention jewelry, posters, etc. While I’m sure that most of these folks weren’t Jewish (Grand Rapids is a bastion of Christian Reformed practice in the U.S.), the Matis love brought out a notable public affinity for symbols which less than a hundred years ago would have been a source of danger for many Jews, and shame for others. One group at the front of the stage even brought in a giant, stylized Star of David flag, a riff on the Israeli flag (but more colorful). Was it odd seeing all those stars? A little, especially at a pop concert, but the strangeness of it was encompassed by the sense of freedom in the room.

Photo by Lindsay Baker

The show ended as many of Matis’ shows do: with “One Day,” probably his best known track (short of “King Without a Crown“). A row full of young people were pulled onto the stage to finish the last lines with Matis himself. They swarmed him excitedly so that, despite being very close to the stage myself, Matis actually disappeared for the last bit.

As I exited the venue, Matis came out behind us, with shouts of “Awesome show!” ringing in our ears from friendly fans. Matis just smiled. Hopefully, despite the desperation of his critics, who have yet to move on from his bare pate and fringe-less garb, the unabashed enthusiasm from those less judgmental will be what Matisyahu remembers of this record and tour. Certainly the rest of us will.

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