Saturday, April 1, 2017

Live at the Belly Up: Matisyahu (KPBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I turned on a KPBS telecast of Live at the Belly Up, the series featuring musical acts who perform at the legendary Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach (a place I will almost certainly never go to in person because of my transportation issues, so it’s really nice of the local PBS outlet to bring them to me). This time the featured artist was Matisyahu, a Jewish reggae-rock-rap performer born Matthew Paul Miller (“Matisyahu” is simply the Hebrew form of “Matthew”) in Westchester, Pennsylvania on June 30, 1979. He had a troubled time as a teenager when he discovered drugs and the Grateful Dead knockoff band, Phish, but he managed to get into a couple of rehab programs where he rediscovered his Jewish roots and became ultra-serious about Jewish religious practice — so much so that from 2001 to 2007 he was a part of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, one of the most intensely Orthodox Jewish sects anywhere in the world. He made a couple of albums for independent producers and then made his major-label debut with the 2006 CD Youth, and photos of him in yarmulke, prayer shawl and wearing a full Hasidic beard dominated record stores (remember record stores?) for quite a while. Though I ordinarily pride myself on not judging artists based on their personal lives, I made an exception in Matisyahu’s case when I read in CityBeat magazine that when a couple of women fans went up to him after a performance andtried to shake his hand, he refused on the ground that as a Hasidic Jew he wasn’t allowed to touch anyone other than his wife. Religion, schmeligion; to me that just seemed incredibly rude, and the story so put me off I swore never to listen to Matisyahu’s music. I never did until last night, when I watched the Live at the Belly Up telecast and found it not half-bad.

It helps that since 2007 he’s drifted away from the Lubavitcher community — he’s still serious about Judaism but he’s doffed the yarmulke, shaved the beard (“No more Chassidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is alias,” he said in a press statement when he went clean-shaven) and looks like your normal generic rock singer — indeed, he reminded me of Peter Scanavino, one of the latest (and pathetically inadequate) replacements for Christopher Meloni on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, being tall, gawky and with bad but not especially long hair. I found myself actually liking Matisyahu’s music at first, but soon began being annoyed by some aspects of it: the long instrumental jams he likes to let his band indulge in (obviously influenced by his boyhood love of a Grateful Dead-ish band like Phish!), the human-beatbox effects he does ad nauseam and the dropping of Jewish references into his song lyrics. Charles noted that he used words like “Jerusalem” and “Zion” in his lyrics, and though I pointed out that those words take on a different context in the work of a Jewish artist than they’d have in a Rastafarian like the late Bob Marley (ironically, Charles was wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt while we were watching this!), Charles noted that he was drawing on the reggae tradition and in particular on the quirky spirituality that underpinned it, which drew on both Christianity and Judaism without being either. It’s an indication of how long Matisyahu sustains a song past what its music and lyrics can sustain and still remain interesting that during the 55-minute running time of this show he performed only seven numbers: “Exhaltation” [sic], “Jerusalem,” “Sunshine,” “One Day” (a song NBC used in promo spots for their telecast of the 2010 Winter Olympics), “Hard Way,” “Close My Eyes” and “Searchin’/Asih Tamid” — and I liked him at first and even found some of his grooves infectious, but as the show progressed the sameness of the material (just about all of it was in the loping mid-tempo reggae beat familiar from Marley’s records and everyone who’s ripped him off, including his kids), the thinness of Matisyahu’s voice and the murk of the lighting design (virtually all of his band members were little more than blobs of light against a blobby background, though Charles got a good enough look at Matisyahu’s drummer to decide he looked like the actor Michael Cera — he did, too) got more than a bit oppressive after a while.