Last night, Jews and Gentiles alike gathered at the modern musical cathedral that is the Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center for a special performance by Matisyahu. The reggae-loving Jewish beatboxer was back in South Florida celebrating the ten-year anniversary of his breakthrough album, Live at Stubb's. The show promised to be an appropriate segue that would guide us through our post-Christmas and post-Hanukkah hangovers and into the heathen revelry of New Year's Eve.
Although he first appeared on the reggae scene as an Hasidic Orthodox Jew, the kind we see dressed in a stark black suit, yarmulke, and lush, untrimmed beard, Matisyahu — born Matthew Paul Miller — has always had an unorthodox style and career. His appearance at the Knight Concert Hall stayed true to form. At a venue that normally hosts touring ballet and theater companies, here was a vegan, hippie dad, rocking out to reggae songs filled with biblical imagery. What was billed as an intimate concert featuring “stripped back arrangements” was all that and more.
Oftentimes, "stripped" just means acoustic. Instead, Matisyahu and his four-piece band, including guitarist Aaron Dugan, who appeared on the original Live at Stubb's recording, treated the crowd of nearly 2,200 to a varied experience by making the most of the venue's aural abilities.
From the start, the room was filled with rich, deep tones, laying a foundation for Matisyahu's spiritual crooning and allowing a greater sense of gravitas... a spell that was then broken in the most adorable way when his son, Menachem Mendel, confidently and unapologetically strolled across stage to join his dad. Matisyahu lifted him up and performed the rest of the song “Broken Car” with his son on his lap.
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Throughout the remainder of the first half, the boy, dressed in a sharp black suit, drifted on and off and even brought out a stool, bigger than him, to climb and sit atop.
In direct contrast to his son, Matisyahu was clad in a white shirt, jean jacket, white skinny jeans, and a backward ball cap, an ensemble far, far removed from his early days, including the live show that brought him to prominence — the one we were all currently recognizing. Still, as much as things have changed for Matisyahu outwardly, perhaps the greatest adjustments have been internal. In the recent past, he's described his relationship with Judaism as complicated and said leaving the more orthodox parts of it was “one of the hardest things I've had to do.”
He also assured us it was not caused by smoking too much weed.
Onstage, he's clearly still feeling a connection to, at the very least, his music and the messages embedded in them. At 36, he's nearly gray and wears the visage of a conflicted man. However, when he sings, “Glory to the king of creation” on the track “Surrender,” off of his 2014 effort, Akeda, it's clear he still means it.
It's easy to forget — with all of his dancehall influences, inclusion of Caribbean flavors, and hip-hop stylings — that Matisyahu's music is rooted and almost entirely built around his religious beliefs, which would mean a death sentence for many artists aspiring to crack the mainstream.
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While there's still a dorky or vanilla stigma that comes with Christian rock. Matisyahu makes Jewish mysticism, not an entirely appealing subject outside of the faith itself, not just cool but danceable. In fact, a few times, Matisyahu showed us how to get down. When he wasn't singing and his band was busy jamming, he turned his back to the audience, becoming one of us, enjoying the music, shimmying back and forth, air-guitaring, and whipping about his salt and pepper locks.
This rock ’n’ roll version of temple — with chants, tender meditations, and an awed reverence for God — encompassed everything that first attracted people to his work. He powered through the sounds of his heroes like Barrington Levy and Bob Marley, infused a bit of smooth Sade-like R&B, and put his impressive beatboxing skills on display in a manner any a cappella geek or street-corner MC would appreciate.
He even satisfied those there only for his pop radio stuff. Early on, those fans expecting a show featuring nothing but his most boisterous of hits — “One Day” being the standout — may have been disappointed. Of course, in true Miami fashion, a few drunken, ill-mannered savages vocalized their impatience between quiet moments of exceedingly emotional numbers.
Thankfully, Matisyahu brushed it off as he's brushed off most criticism for the past few years since turning away from Hasidic Judaism. What we got last night was a complex artist who's more authentic than he's ever been as he remains true to himself and his craft. Ten years on and Miami may have just seen the real Matisyahu for the very first time.