A hot ticket but not the most exciting one

Boston Globe, February 15, 2006

When he’s not making music, Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae singer from Brooklyn, spends most of his time in shul, contemplating the Almighty. So it would have taken far more than a snowstorm, a mere terrestrial impediment, to stop him from delivering his scheduled performance at Avalon Sunday night.

It’s simply stating facts to say that the 25-year-old artist born Matthew Miller is the flavor of the moment, with tickets for the sold-out show trading online for as much as $100. The room was packed with a young crowd that included a smattering of yarmulke’d Orthodox Jews and an undercurrent of hippie energies.

They warmly received a workmanlike set featuring hits from the 2005 release “Live at Stubb’s,” such as “Chop ‘Em Down,” which tells the story of Exodus, “Warrior,” and perhaps Matisyahu’s most sophisticated offering, “Aish Tamid,” in which the singer finds grace amid the hubbub of the city. He also offered previews from his studio album to be released next month.

Matisyahu’s lyrics brim with earnest piousness, weaving divinity into every theme and breaking for snippets of Scripture. He informed the crowd that the show coincided with the Jewish holiday Tu B’Shevat, which he called “new year for trees,” and segued into a metaphoric meditation on branches, bark, and rootedness in faith.

Reggae is a reasonable enough vehicle for such considerations, grounded as it is in Rasta spirituality and laden with references to the tribes of Israel and the Lion of Judah. The sacraments differ Matisyahu eschews the weed and so does the theology, but even so, and despite the complete absence from the crowd of the traditional reggae audience, there’s no good reason to begrudge the Hasidic reggaeman his choice of genre.

The show’s incongruous highlight was a segment of beatboxing, the hip-hop technique of making music with one’s mouth, at which Matisyahu excels. His singing voice, however, seemed fragile and thin. The band’s rhythms, although perfectly competent, lacked imagination, and eventually a certain dullness set in.

Opening was labelmate So Called, a solo artist with a beat machine, rocking wild bushy hair around a bald spot in the finest tradition of nerd chic. Part cantor, part MC, he tried to lead the crowd in a chant of “I wanna be your `oy’ boy, Will you be my goy toy?” without much success.