A Hasidic Jew from California is not exactly the image associated with reggae and hip hop. When most people think of reggae, they most likely think of the Marley legacy- Bob and Ziggy, with their Rastafarian dreadlocks and thick accents revolutionized reggae music into a culture of marijuana and bopping guitar chords. And when Bob Marley passed away, reggae lost their living legend. Other than the effort from his sons, reggae has, for the most part at least, remained an unnoticed genre in pop culture for the past decade. But Matthew Miller, known as Matisyahu to most people, a Hasidic Jew that comes from northern California (which immediately makes him awesome), has seemed to revive reggae into the mainstream airwaves as of recently, with his 2004 debut album, Shake Off The Dust…Arise. Within the confines of just one hour, Matisyahu ignites a raucous array of rhyming and religion. His faith plays an integral role in his music, and most of his lyrics are narratives for Israel and Jerusalem. But Matisyahu was not a Hasidic reggae star forever. In fact, his past is anything but ordinary for a musician of his caliber. Matthew Miller was born into a non religious Jewish family. A high school dropout, and rather extensive hippy, who flunked out of high school to find himself deep within his id, whilst following Phish around their tours. But one day, Matthew realized that he needed to turn to Hasidism, at the same time finding a deep love for hip hop and reggae music. And his alias, Matisyahu- A reggae demon, was born.
After a huge hit debut album, Matisyahu had become a star amongst much more typical artists. He toured, a lot, making setlists that consisted of hits from his album, and adding a pseudo- sanctimonious spin. But while his album was nonchalant and encompassed a rather laid back atmosphere, his live shows were energetic and fiery. His interaction with the crowd sparked a flame inside him that set him on fire, and his cool songs turned into incendiary fire-spitting spectacle where a Hasidic Jew became a pyromaniac with words. To embrace his volatile live performances as a unique twist to Shake Off the Dust, Matisyahu released a live album, entitled Live At Stubb’s, a pub in southern California where Miller thought his live sound was at its peak. All I really have to say about his opinion is that he is exactly right, and made what is easily his best move yet as an artist.
Live At Stubb’s is probably the most igniting performance I’ve heard by a non- hard rock artist in the longest time. Not to say that it is a life changing listen, but it’s close to perfect. The gems from the debut are all in the set list, including Chop ‘Em Down, King Without a Crown, Aish Tamid, and Close My Eyes. But they are not exactly the songs you heard on the studio album. Matisyahu kicks it up a notch with his blazing speed and fiery rhymes. What you heard on Shake Off The Dust…Arise is accelerated to a rapid, galloping pace (vocally, of course- the music is still the same reggae tempo that is familiar to listeners). Matisyahu packs the songs with Hebrew chants and fills the gaps between verses with a lightning paced croon. But what is most rewarding about this performance is Matisyahu’s interaction with the audience. He feeds off of the crowd’s enthusiasm and reactions, frequently packing in outbursts of raw energy that never really caught you on his studio album. And the crowd is actually a plus on this live recording. While most live albums can get tedious due to an overtly eccentric crowd, Stubb’s is enjoyable thanks to the crowd. They let you know that they absolutely love the music, whilst not making asses out of themselves by popping their vocal chords due to screaming so loud. And they are, in an essence, what drives Matisyahu to burst into fire during the songs.
But Matisyahu’s music is not all about a religious Jew that seems to blow his Rastafarian competition out of the water. He is one of the predominant stars in hip hop pop culture to use real, live musicians as a backing band. And better yet, the band has talent. When Matisyahu isn’t spewing his emotions through blazing vocals, his band is filling the holes with some very entertaining music. The standard reggae beat is used often enough, with some pretty guitar playing high up on the neck, and dense basslines thudding in the groove. The chord progressions are solid, and his guitar player actually shreds in some songs. Fire And Heights is a song completely built around the band being in the spotlight. Every member gets a solo, and rips on it. The bass playing takes groove over flash, which is necessary for reggae, and I like it, because the basslines are deep, dense, and in the pocket. And the drummer does not skip a beat, which is very difficult for a reggae drummer to do when he is constantly shuffling the hihats with offbeat snare and bass drum hits. But what is easily most rewarding about Live At Stubb’s is how Matisyahu puts his own spin on his own material. Beat Box shows how much fun he can have while onstage, using his voice as a drum machine, while his lyrics are uplifting and motivational. He incorporates his religion into his lyrics, most of which are metaphorical allegories for Judaism. But whether or not your faith lies in Judaism is not important, because you do not have to be Jewish to understand, or for that matter, enjoy Matisyahu’s music.
Not every aspect of this performance is crisp, clean, and picturesque, however. The ratio of positive to negative is not much, but it is evident that there are bad portions of the album. For instance, in some places within the songs, Matisyahu chants way too much. I can be complacent with thirty seconds of it, but when an eight minute song only contains 5:12 of actual music, it gets to be tiresome. He’s not chanting in Hebrew, either. It’s rather just gibberish and yelping noises for two minutes. And Fire And Heights could’ve been done without, as well as Beat Box. They were fun, and entertaining, but I would have loved to have seen Candle, one of my favorite songs, make it onto the set list.
Matisyahu was already great enough in the studio, but Live At Stubb’s just shows how he could improve his music to make everyone’s jaw drop even further. While Shake Off The Dust was chilled back and relaxed, his show at Stubb’s is raucous and attacking; An incendiary performance that will probably shock everyone the first time they find out it is an orthodox, Hasidic Jew losing his mind on a microphone. He is a vicious talent that is a sigh of relief for all the people who were tired of all the ghetto hip hop imagery out there, and to see a man with talent and an exotic personality make it big, and blowing everyone out of the water. If you are wondering whether or not a Matisyahu show is worth money to see, Live At Stubb’s will hopefully ease out any doubts you have in your mind. And I personally think that’s what Matisyahu was aiming for in the first place.