A motley crowd descended on Sultan's Pool last Wednesday night to watch as Matisyahu brought his eclectic blend of ragga and 'ruah' to Jerusalem, a city that is such a potent source of inspiration for the singer. Religious and non-religious, and some elusively unaffiliatable; young and old - a few rows down were a white-haired couple who appeared to be pushing 80 - all turned out to catch the Jewish Orthodox reggae star. A portent of the tribute our eternal capital was to receive throughout the evening was offered up by Mayor Nir Barkat, who before the show boarded the stage to proudly announce to the audience that "Jerusalem's atmosphere has no competition."
And indeed, although it was slow to build up, the show eventually hit fever pitch.
But first, Matisyahu made a decidedly understated entrance. Hooded in a blue sweatshirt and sporting a pair of shades, he seemed removed, aloof, even, as he began his set with a reserved rendition of "Escape," one of the gloomier tracks on his latest album, Light. As he sang "Things seem to sway," Matisyahu also appeared to stagger across the stage, unanimated, seeming to fluctuate in time with the uncertainties conveyed by the lyrics. But, as he moved on to the next song, "Indestructible," the sense of ambiguity began to peel away and a stronger, more focused energy began to flow forth from him. Swaying with the music, Matisyahu seemed to enter a world all his own, enwrapped in rapture and quiet devotion as he sang "For you I wait silently."
AND THEN the glasses came off. And the hood. And the crowd was instantly charmed by the brief sheepish smile, responding with a warm welcoming applause to the ensuing "Jerusalem, how're you doing?" Matisyahu had arrived, having shed, it seemed, at least the external trappings of a rock-star image he's been struggling with. After that it was a straight revelation, as Matisyahu removed the sweatshirt and with the stutter-stepping reggae version of a pirouette gave the audience a full view of the large Hebrew letter "Aleph" splayed across the back of his white jumpsuit.
And surely enough, commensurate with the all-encompassing vision and oneness embodied in the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the next song was "One Day," an energetic messianic vision of a world with no wars and peace on Earth. Matisyahu then launched into a funky beatboxing session which punctuated the fine quality of his backing crew, Dub Trio - composed of Stu Brooks on bass, drummer Joe Tomino and guitarist D.P. Holmes - and two members of his original band - keyboardist Rob Marscher and guitarist Aaron Dugan. The band really displayed its strengths, emanating a sonorous soundscape of drums and bass, interspersed with bursts of electronic reverb effects. That was when the elderly couple decided they had had enough and began shuffling towards the exit.
As an aside, it's worth noting that less than a third of the set list was made up of songs from Light, which perhaps has something to do with the mixed reactions the album has elicited.
Matisyahu continued with a passionate and gentle rendition of 'Aish Tamid,' one of the hits from his debut album, 2004's Shake Off the Dust... Arise. "Breeze traveling across the seas arisen from within on Mt. Zion," Matisyahu sang, and indeed, a spirit seemed to awaken in him as he swayed to the rhythm of an inner yearning. For moments he appeared to be praying. The splendor of the Old City walls, flooded with light behind him, lent an added resonance to this subtle song of exile and redemption.
IT WAS a nice contrast, after those heights of emotion, when next the band blasted off with a howl of electric guitars and Matisyahu bounced into the opening lines of the title song of his second album, Youth. Fittingly, the massive group of young people packed close in front of the stage began to jump up and down, one of them even ecstatically waving a lulav in the air. For a minute or two Matisyahu left the stage to the band and went off to sit on some scaffolding, grooving to Aaron Dugan's guitar chops, the microphone in his pocket.
Twice Matisyahu launched himself into the crowd, surfing on its outstretched hands and somewhat possessive adoration - the second time two members of the stage crew had to fish him out of the sea of grasps.
One thing that really came through in the next song, "Ancient Lullaby," was a strong sense of soulfullness and authenticity that is such a refreshing change from many other - albeit sometimes more polished - rock performers, whose showmanship sometimes eclipses their intensity. A restless Matisyahu alternately sat down and stood up; at times swaying meditatively, he seemed to be experiencing the song's personal emotional import all over again, despite having performed it so many times in the past.
After a solid rendition of "King Without a Crown" Matisyahu thanked the audience and left the stage, several minutes later returning for an encore of "Got no Water," the band's sound elevating his voice as he sang "Take flight in the sky, got wings like a dove." The set appropriately ended with a sweeping performance of "Jerusalem," also from Youth, as Matisyahu was joined onstage by his friend soprano saxophonist Daniel Zamir - who reciprocated for Matisyahu's impromptu appearance at his own recent concert with a trademark blazingly fast solo - and Yehuda Solomon of the Moshav Band.
"Jerusalem, if I forget you, let my right hand forget what it's supposed to do," Matisyahu sang and proudly held up the lulav thrown to him from the audience.
It's pretty safe to say that Jerusalem won't forget him.