There is no doubt that, as the lead off song for his new album and last nights concert suggests, Matisyahu is at a crossroads. He's shed the visible trappings of Chassidus and Orthodoxy, losing a lot of fans in those communities in the process. He's also continuing to make some of the most soulful, spiritual, and without a doubt Jewish, pop music made in the US in decades, bringing in new fans with each album and tour. His concert in Detroit last night, to an adoring packed house at Detorit's Fillmore Theater, showcased many of the challenges he's facing at this point in his career.
Four years ago, also at the Fillmore, I attended my first Matis concert. The audience was about half full and was one of the most diverse crowds I'd ever seen. They were in jeans and t-shirts, in black hats or modest skirts, over 60, and under 10. Some clearly, visibly Jewish. Many not so clearly or not at all. The two years that followed were much the same. Though the shows moved to the sauna-hot St. Andrews around the corner, the crowds were mixed and enthusiastic. Each year the crowds were a bit bigger and a bit more enthusiastic. This year, Matis' first Detroit appearance since shaving his beard, the concert was back at the Fillmore. The hall was packed and crowd was far less mixed. I still saw some kids, but didn't see a single black hat or visible yarmulke.
So did he sell out to bring in more fans, as some have charged? Is he continuing on his own religious exploration as he claims? I went to the show, having spent the last week listening to his new album Spark Seeker, hoping to find out. How would this album and show compare? Would this be the same Matisyahu, who's music has meant so much to so many?
My answer is mostly yes, though also no in a surprising way. First the yes. Sitting up in the mezzanine (if you look carefully at the fantastic stage diving picture above, you can see my wife's elbows all akimbo holding binoculars right above Matis' right knee), I closed my eyes and attempted, as Matis has suggested, to "dream awake." And he makes it easy. His rich voice and his uplifting image-laden lyrics were warm and familiar. His new songs blended well with his old favorites (fans will always argue if the new album is as good as the last. I say it doesn't have a single as catchy as One Day or Miracle and doesn't have any tracks that have grabbed me like the amazing Shattered ep from two years go, but it's pretty darn good). He still called for Moshiach Now! in King without a Crown. He still exhorted me to be better, still pushed me love God, man, and myself better, and still gave me a room filled with people with whom to sing. So yes. Matisyahu is still Matisyahu, visible Jewish beard and jacket aside.
But there was one unexpected no. There was something that Matisyahu's beard and jacket gave him that he lacked last night and that's gravitas. Strictly from a theatric performance point of view, Matis' Chassidic garb set him apart from his audience and peers in a manner that suggested age, wisdom, and authority. It's arguable that this association was misplaced, a jacket and a beard do not earn the wearer any of those attributes nor do all those of age, wisdom, and authority look like a Chassidic Rebbe. But the association was real. And seeing Matis on bouncing around stage in a white t-shirt, jean jacket, stylish hair and sunglasses lessened that gravitas in a real way. With my eyes closed, I dreamed awake. With them open, I was at a very good rock concert.
So to those who now dismiss Matis as having sold out or, perversely view his previous persona as merely a shtick, you're deeply wrong and need to get over your own preconceptions. But as wonderful as last nights show was, for me there was something a bit less about it. Maybe I need to get over my preconceptions too. Or maybe Matis, having reached this crossroad needs to find a new path where he can be true to himself but retain the gravitas that his vision and music demands.