Less than half a minute into a first song appropriately titled "Open the Gates," Matisyahu's dancing had already grown so intense his yarmulke could no longer support it. Instead, it popped off. This action would later repeat itself, like proof of his prowess, five times before he finished. It's an obviously frequent occurrence: Each time he grew a little too wild for his maroon head cover, the Jewish rapper spun low to the ground, grabbed it and replaced it in one extended whirl. You heard the new phrase here first: "Dude danced so hard his yarmulke came off."
By the time Matisyahu (birth name Matthew Miller) took his religious and musical fervor to the stage, it had already been warmed up for him. The night's opener, Dubskin, is a six-piece American reggae band from Fort Collins that is as exactly as talented as that description would leave you to believe it isn't. The guys sing nostalgically about Africa and their songs are so long in the required jam sections they might still be onstage -- and their attitude held its own against the whirling dervish who succeeded them on the setlist. When he stepped up to the mike, Matisyahu looked like a synagogue super hero: Yarmulke on top, sunglasses up front, black trench coat on the bottom, Matrix vibe all over.
And last week, he took the red pill. Since he posted online proof (see above) on Tuesday, considerable controversy has been launched at the fact that the formerly Hasidic Jewish MC turned against religious tradition to shave his face and head. The decision is a monumental one, to be sure, and Matisyahu still isn't giving interviews on the subject, but its effects are completely moot at the live level. The only noticeable difference in his performance is that, when he has lost himself in a lyric, as he does often, the 32-year-old's grin makes him look not a little like Jimmy Fallon.
To see Matisyahu in concert is a spiritual experience. Even if the man didn't hold his mike like he's praying, close his eyes when he reaches the sad parts and twirl so violently his prayer vest dances with him, the power of his presence would still be nearly miraculous. The same thing goes for the reality that rap, rock and reggae can combine so comfortably in one of God's chosen people. The only real difficulty comes in determining whether the energy you're responding to is the one he's creating or the one he's radiating: Was it the religion or the egg?
But as you stand in the middle of bros, Rastafarians and Orthodox Jews in the strangest and most comedic audience ever, it no longer matters. At this point, of course, someone offers you a joint. Matisyahu's swagger (bold and aggressive) owes as much to dancehall as his lyrics (David and Goliath) borrow from the First Testament. When he sings "Sunshine," the line "your clothes have all been torn" is accompanied by a feigned tear at his shirt. This, in turn, is accompanied by a view of the prayer vest underneath it. Although the audience can, at no point, forget his religion, you'd be amiss if you didn't stop focusing on it.
This is easiest to do when he cusses: Although the man seems pretty shy outside of his oversized stage charm, he did, at one point, request that the crowd "make some fucking noise." As he sang about a "world gone corrupt" ("Lord Raise Me Up"), he danced in sad slow motion so that, for all intents and appearance, he seemed to be swimming through the crowd's applause. (There was a lot of it.) When the next song, "Ancient Lullaby," marked the night's third straight song as close to a ballad as his mix of hazzan and reggae can get, Matisyahu closed his eyes, sang softly and paced slowly across the front of the stage. Despite its oversized enjoyability, no one took more from the show than Matisyahu did.
And when the lights changed back from ballad blue to rock red, the rapper sang his two greatest hits -- "King Without a Crown" and "One Day" -- with all the pop persuasion of a world-weary Katy Perry. Although he spoke only two sentences to the crowd the entire night, the second one made up for the first. Before returning for an encore that could never compete with the first set's conclusion, Matisyahu picked up his yarmulke from where he had danced it to the floor, kissed his fingers and whispered into the mike. "God bless."
Personal Bias: Literally anything I say here might qualify as blasphemy, so I will instead admit I have a huge concert crush on Matthew Miller. By the Way: If this show sucked, I was fully prepared to make some kind of Samson crack about his shorn locks. I'm glad it didn't -- both because it was my favorite concert of 2011 and because it narrowly saved us all from that terrifying Biblical cliché. Random Detail: The four women to my left brought out the marijuana before the show even started. By the encore, they were so high they kept turning to each other and asking, "Where did you come from?" They carpooled together, so the answer was: the same Ford Taurus you did.
Matisyahu Ogden Theatre - 12/18/11 Denver, CO
01. "Open the Gates" 02. "Struggla" 03. "Jerusalem" 04. "Sunshine" 05. "Darkness Into Light" 06. "Youth" 07. "Lord Raise Me Up" 08. "Ancient Lullaby" 09. "Miracle" 10. "King Without a Crown" 11. "One Day"
ENCORE 12. "Two Child One Drop" 13. "Aish Tamid" 14. "Indestructible"
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