At first look, Matisyahu might be the most unlikely rap/reggae star to grace the stage. When was the last time you saw a guy of Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic faith rocking the mike with full-on beard, tzitzit, tallis and yarmulke?
It's not that weird, though. Reggae and dancehall often stem from a place of faith, and in Matisyahu's case, it's a matter of replacing "Jah" with "Hashem," and culling lyrical material from Torah rather than Rasta.
Born Matthew Miller, the New York-based musician was raised in a Jewish family but stumbled seriously into Judaism while in Colorado, on a retreat from his suburban teenage hippie upbringing. After a stint following Phish (whose frontman, Trey Anastasio, Matisyahu just completed five tour dates with) and a trip to Israel, the 19-year-old returned to New York and found himself honing his nascent talents at The New School, splitting his time between school and schul. An awakening to Hasidic Judaism followed, cementing the change from Miller to Matisyahu.
Matisyahu's music, while not groundbreaking for its genre, is uplifting and sincere enough to garner the musician a wide and diverse fan base. Evangelical rockers often come across as ham-handed, corny or just plain bad, but Matisyahu deals with issues of faith with such openness -- and with such a delicate and honestly intellectual touch -- that it's hard to shut him off, whatever your religious inclinations.
With an impressive verbal range, Matisyahu can switch from beatbox to machine-gun Hebrew patois to flat-out folkish singing. And, while the public's attention span for "novel" reggae is notoriously short (anyone remember DJ Snow?), Matisyahu's appeal is close enough to traditional reggae for folks to ignore that his Zion is Jerusalem, not Jamaica.
-- Aaron Retka
Matisyahu at Reggae on the Rocks XX, with Culture, Majek Fashek, Israel Vibration, Yellowman, Easy Star All-Stars and more
Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison
Saturday, Aug. 20, noon (doors open at 11 a.m.)
Tickets: $41; log on to redrocksonline.com.