During a talk last month at Wash U, distinguished alumnus Harold Ramis described a rabbi who recommended carrying a slip of paper in each pocket. One should read, "Today the world was created just for you," while the other should say, "You are a speck of dust in a vast and meaningless universe." He added: "We have to remember that neither is true - and both are."
Perhaps these guiding principles of balance were tucked into Matisyahu's pockets last night. As he played in front of a boisterous Pageant crowd, it would be easy for him to believe the world was at his command. Yet the packed show was a communal experience, as would be expected from the Hasidic-Jewish reggae-fusion artist who raps about spirituality, joy and peace. Beyond returning appreciation to the audience, he shared the stage with artists Trevor Hall and Kosha Dillz, as well as a full backing band that expand his sound into alt rock and world pop, proving he's not blinkered by the popularity of his idiosyncratic brand.
The pre-show yarmulke count was at seven in the pit when Trevor Hall's three-piece took the stage at 8 p.m. to raucous applause. Backed by a bassist and drummer, the dreadlocked, blond-haired Hall played a short set of laidback roots ditties. He delivered platitudes such as "my heart's stressing for a blessing" and "where is the love" in a low, island-accented croon that perfectly matched his acoustic guitar strums. Members of the audience -- many of whom seemed to have caught Hall's recent show at the Duck Room - showed him love.
A large crowd, from the full-up pit to the densely-populated balcony, greeted Matisyahu as he rushed the stage promptly at 9 p.m. and didn't leave for nearly two and a half hours. Tall and straight in an orange suit coat with tassels (tzitzit) swinging, the MC cuts an impressive image, his full beard deceptively aging his youthful voice and style. Matisyahu launched into the long set with intensity and agility, employing his combination of half-sung flow and otherworldly chants.
The five-piece backing band (drums, guitars, bass, keys) reflected the sound of his latest release, Light, and allowed him to veer from dancehall beats to gigantic, Viva la Vida-style crescendos in moments. At times, the band sounded gigantic; it often started a song with charging hard rock riffs, before backing off to reveal the slow reggae vibes underneath. This was when Matisyahu would break in, often performing a slo-mo stroll at center stage.
The band's extended and rhythm-friendly jams let loose both the crowd and MC, the former switching between hippie dancing and headbanging, the latter whirling and high-stepping all over the stage, as songs blurred and bled out. The keyed-up young crowd also responded to the energy with relentless crowd-surfing.
Points of Interest: *Little more than halfway through the set, Matisyahu played sped-up version of "Time of Your Song," off 2006's Youth. Even with the song's signature piano part dialed down, the bouncy prayer stirred young men to form a mosh pit. *Later in the set, he brought back head-wrapped Trevor Hall, who performed the solo singalong "Lime Tree," a simple, pretty jam. *The Poem: Matis asked for "focus, especially you teenagers," for Hall's recitation of an original poem, which he performed with closed eyes while strumming along to lines about waking up "in the Lion's mane...deep within God's dreadlocks." Heeding Matis' encouragement to "meditate," a nearby girl kept screaming, "Take me, Trevor!" *Over the tail-end of Hall's acoustic plucking, Matisyahu turned the tide from stoner-verse to bad-ass by beginning a fantastic had-to-be-ten-minute beatboxing run. *He closed the regular set with "King Without a Crown," but changed the rhythm and distorted the guitar part, and encored to general euphoria with bright single, "One Day." *Though advised by rabbis against stage-diving, because he might make physical contact with women who are not his wife, Matis took the leap anyway, his face childlike with the thrill.
Critic's Notebook: Though I think the full band is necessary for an effective show that goes beyond a beach bonfire, Matisyahu's voice is the driving force, and I hope he won't lose that vision and identity in generic over-production.
Poncho-sans-undershirt tally: One
Crowd-surfers dropped in the haze: Several. But they saved the joint!