Unorthodox behavior 

Matisyahu abandons his Hasidic image but keeps his trademark sound

Aside from ZZ Top, few musicians could cause a full-on commotion just by shaving off their beards. And while Top's Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill haven't taken a razor to their chest-length facial hair in four decades, Matisyahu went clean-shaven and trimmed his hair six years after 2005's "King Without a Crown" single went gold.

It radically altered his appearance, but also registered on a much deeper level because of what the whisker-whacking represented.

As music's leading Hasidic Jewish artist, Matisyahu had inspired a legion of people who also followed his religion in ways that went beyond his music. He set an example for how to follow the Orthodox Jewish religion, yet also assimilate into society as a whole and enjoy such secular pursuits as going to concerts and clubs. Meanwhile, he was making music infused with styles born far outside the Hasidic culture.

He became a symbol of much more than music.

Then, in December 2011, Matisyahu posted a photo of himself on Twitter. He had shaved off his full beard, a symbol of his devotion to Orthodox Judaism. Although Matisyahu tried to explain that he had not rejected his faith and had only decided he could not live by certain specific rules that are part of it, the change in his appearance caused plenty of consternation and questions.

Nearly three years and two albums later, Matisyahu — Matt Miller is his secular name — says he has yet to get a good read on how the image change has impacted his image.

"There are some people who get it and there are some people that don't, and that's what it is," says the musician. "I have no control over who understands my life and who doesn't understand it, and who understands my music and who doesn't. And I try not to spend too much time really thinking, or worrying, or even reading comments about it. I'm kind of busy living my life."

Up until he revealed his new look, Matisyahu hadn't had to deal with much in the way of criticism. Now 35, he started to show up on the music scene radar with his independently released 2004 debut album, Shake Off the Dust ... Arise. That was followed in 2006 by the concert CD, Live at Stubb's, which was picked up for release by Epic Records and gained the attention of the mainstream media.

He was praised for his sound, a blend of reggae, hip-hop and rock, and for the spiritual, uplifting messages in his lyrics. He ended 2006 riding a wave of popularity, as his second studio album, Youth, and the aforementioned "King Without a Crown" climbed the Billboard charts.

His subsequent studio albums, including the recently released Akeda, have also helped show that Matisyahu's music extends well beyond the reggae-pop sound that first gained attention.

While his sound has consistently diversified over time, Matisyahu's latest album is especially diverse. Hip-hop remains a core element, blending with electronic pop on "Vow of Silence." There's also tuneful rock on the horn-filled "Reservoir," and a good measure of pop on "Built to Survive" and "Ayeka (Teach Me to Love)."

The reggae influence, meanwhile, had become less pronounced over the years, but returns in a prominent way on the songs "Black Heart" and "Confidence."

"I think my music has always been really diverse. I think it's always had this, you know, unique mixture of genres," Matisyahu says. "Because I was so heavily influenced by this dancehall conscious reggae music in the early 2000s, when I was really developing my voice. That was the main voicing that I used. But throughout time, I've always dipped into and combined different things."

Always a dynamic live performer, the artist will be touring with his backing group, the Dub Trio, plus guitarist Aaron Dugan, whose credits include working with Bootsy Collins, Trevor Horn and John Zorn.

Fans can, of course, expect to hear a lot of Akeda, peppered with tracks each from his previous albums. He's also intent on keeping spontaneity and improvisation as key elements in the music.

"The reason why I do what I do is not really to go out there and play [the 2009 hit] 'One Day' or even to play the new songs," says Matisyahu. "It's that moment during the improvisation, when we do something unique, when we do something that hasn't happened before. And I feel a sort of unlocking happen, something open up. And it's in those moments when I speak to God and I feel that I'm speaking authentically. That's why I continue to do this, and that's what I'm trying to search for from night to night."


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