I'm not going to do a review of last night's Matisyahu show at Turner Hall. See Velvel for that. He's much more articulate than me. I am going to relay a few impressions that I got from the show.
Short Story: It was a good show.
If there's a line that separates the Jewish from the Secular music world, Matisyahu has planted himself firmly on the Secular side. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I base this on a few criteria:
The show had much more in common with the typical Secular club/concert act than any Jewish music act I've ever seen. It reminded me much more of the band my daughter dragged me to see at the Rave. This has to do with the lighting, sound system, volume, quality of the performers and instruments. There was nothing shlocky here. It was for real. It's not an accident that this guy ended up on national TV, while Blue Fringe has not. His production values are slick.
This was basically a Reggae/Pop show. At no time was I in danger of understanding a single word he spoke or sang. It was like watching a hip Reggae band whose lead singer happened to be dressed like a Lubavitcher Chossid. In fact, in the few interludes where Matisyahu walked off stage, we were basically left watching a trio of Non-Jews jamming, and anyone walking into the room at that point would have no idea it was a Jewish event. (UPDATE: See the comments. Some of the band members are Jewish. My Bad)
One of the Chabad organizers came up to me in the middle of one song (I don't know how he recognized me in that dark hall) and said: "These guys are mamash shkutzim (really non-Jews). Can't you guys do this?"
By which I think he meant, wouldn't it have been much more inspiring to the legions of unaffiliated college kids in the audience if 3 Orthodox Jewish guys were up there playing this kind of music. To which I answered, "yes."
My band has always been about Jews playing music. That's why we do it. We are Orthodox Jews, who love rock, reggae, blues, etc., but must balance that with a desire to play for Jews, avoiding traif environments, and Shabbos gigs. And so we have the genre of Jewish Rock to accommodate us.
But of course, that's not Matisyahu's thing. He has decided (wisely) not to bother with frummy musicians, and their associated hangups, like jobs, families, Kollel chevrusas, etc. He's hired 3 professional musicians to travel with him and provide consistent, reliable backup. In this respect, he has more in common with the average Shiney Shoe Musician, who also uses non-Jewish pros, than with the likes of Blue Fringe, Diaspora, or the Moshe Skier Band.
Speaking of Shiney Shoe Music, this guy has got the pipes to put most of them to shame. On the occasions where he did a little Chazzanus, his range, tone, and intensity were right up there with the likes of Avraham Fried or MBD. I can easily see him morphing into the Boro Park music scene when he tires of the Reggae life.
This was the most unapologisingly goyishe shows I've ever seen a frum yid perform. No compromises. Yes, I know, he sang "Tzama" and did a little Chazanus. I look at that more as "shtick." Like if you had a Native American Reggae band, and for the intro of one song the singer started with a little Native American Chant. But then back to the Reggae, mon.
With most Jewish Rock acts, (including my own), the performers try to personalize the show for the audience, to connect with them. This is not done out of spirituality. This is for self-preservation. So you don't get booed off the stage. So when you play for older crowds, you play some of the softer songs, and when you play for college kids, you get more raunchy.
I got the distinct impression that Matisyahu would have done the exact same act whether he was playing to a sea of Black Hats or a room full of Rastafarians (last night saw both). But he is so uncompromisingly authentic that he can actually pull it off. I think people come away thinking that he's spiritual, intense, uncompromising, hip...and they really respect him for it.
I can tell that the Chassidim who were there didn't come for the music. Clearly, most of them are not into Reggae, hip hop, or whatever else was offered that night. They came to see what he could do, and I think that even they were impressed. The non-frum ate him up.
Personally, I think he played well. I like Reggae, but even I can't handle two hours of it. The show was a little monotonous in that respect. We do 3 or 4 Reggae tunes in our act, but we also mix it up with rock, punk, blues, rockabilly, which is why we play so many friggin songs. By the time the set ended, I was ready for it.
There's been alot of talk about whether what he's doing is appropriate, or whether he's making a Kiddush or Chillul Hashem. As far as Jewish Reggae goes, I have no problem with it. Reggae is itself a very spiritual genre, and the themes of spirituality, oppression, redemption, hope and sadness resonate well with Jewish values. It's probably a better match than Jewish Punk or even Rock.
And there is no question in my mind that he made a real Kiddush Hashem, both for the non-frummers in the audience and the non-Jews. He is the real deal. He is authentic, professional, and when I could understand him, a great ambassador for Chabad and the Jewish people. A real Mentch. (That by the way is my highest complement for anyone, even a woman).
Major Bummer #2 (major bummer #1 is here): It turns out my band wasn't snubbed for this show. One of the Chabad Rabbis introduced me to Matisyahu after the show, and said, "next time, if we ask you play with us, maybe you'll say yes." Apparently, they had tried to contact me 4 months ago to open the show and work on logistics with them, but didn't receive a reply, which they took for a lack of interest (probably they emailed the wrong person). They told me over and over that we would have been perfect for this, especially because, as mentioned above, the whole band is Jewish, and they've heard us do this style of music. Oh well, next time, next time.
Prodly beat me to the punch. It was nice meeting you, too.