Matisyahu in Concert: Portland, ME

Portland, ME Dec. 26

Warning:  if you are a huge Matisyahu fan, you may not want to read this.  A day after his Portland Maine concert, I’m not exactly feeling the love.

First, the venue:  the State Theater in Portland.  This campy art-deco theater in the middle of downtown Portland was revitalized in 2002.  The first third is the stage, the second third is a mosh pit, and the remainder is theater seating . . . which is superfluous when you’re talking about a Matisyahu concert, since people aren’t sitting, they’re standing and/or dancing.

A nice thing:  ticket prices were $25, a true bargain in this day of $100 tickets for major artists.  Thanks, Matisyahu, for being reasonable about this and keeping ticket prices down.  There was open seating, another nice touch, so that you could sit with your friends if you had bought individual tickets at different times.

Much angst led up to this concert.  A couple of weeks ago Matisyahu shaved off his beard, creating lots of chatter in both the secular and religious world.  Had he become enough of a legitimate musician in his own right to survive the entertainment industry sans beard, or was this hairy icon simply a gimmick?  Did this mean that Matisyahu was chucking his Jewish observance along with his facial hair?

In an interview  Matisyahu said that he had learned that a beard was a symbol of G-d’s mercy.  Did that mean that without his beard, he asked rhetorically, that he wouldn’t be a recipient of G-d’s mercy?  He said he came to realize on his own that this was (his words) “ludicrous.”

Personally, I don’t care whether he has a beard or not.  Clearly Matisyahu is going though some sort of  a spiritual and/or personal struggle. We certainly can’t know what’s going on in his mind nor are we able to see the bigger picture.   I find it positive that Matisyahu is constantly striving to grow, spiritually and musically, and isn’t afraid to question convention and the parts of frumkeit that are “shtick” versus Truth.   (Gosh, that’s one of the reasons I’m in Maine, after all! )

But I do find the events that followed interesting.  On December 22, while performing at a concert in Brooklyn NY, he got extremely annoyed at a female press photographer’s camera’s flash (she had permission to shoot).  He made a grab for her camera, and naturally, she hung on to her source of livelihood (the camera, not Matisyahu!) for dear life.  So Matisyahu allegedly kicked her in the face, and reached out and broke off the flash from her camera, destroying it.  The photographer considered assault charges until Matisyahu’s manager gave her “a fat wad of cash.”  I guess money talks . . .  His  tweeted response?  “sorry about last night.  I totally snapped.  I  wouldn’t call it a kick, more like stepping into the crowd… and being that you’ve shot so many shows you should know how distracting a huge flash in your face is. . ..  seemed like you were there everywhere I turned with that flash. Next time be more sensitive to the performer.”  (You can read a fuller account of what transpired here.)

Sounds to me like he needs whatever Divine mercy he can get.  Maybe he should’ve kept the beard after all?

So . . . four days after this incident, he finds himself in Portland.  He must have been nervous, because he came on stage wearing sunglasses and a long coat, and his first song was sung in what only can be described as an aloof manner; he seemed oddly disconnected from the crowd.  Ironically, there were plenty of flashes of light, but these came from his own light engineers, who spun strobes, spotlights, and a giant spinning mirrored dreidel (think disco ball from Saturday Night Fever, but in a dreidel shape) that flashed sporadically in the audience’s eyes as well as Matisyahu himself (at one point he literally hung trance-like over one of the very bright spotlights and peered deeply into it as the colored lights changed).

The spinning mirrored disco dreidel is in the top right corner of the picture

Matisyahu, please note: all photos were shot without using a flash!

But Portland isn’t Brooklyn.  It wasn’t a visibly Jewish audience.  Matisyahu clearly relaxed, the glasses and coat came off, and the songs he chose for the set (besides Jerusalem and One Day) clearly reflected that he was in “safe,” non-judgmental territory.  At one point he even took a running leap into the crowd where he was bodily passed around the mosh pit (aka “stage diving”).  The mostly college-age fans came without any agenda except to enjoy his music and rock to his beat and it was clear by his post-concert tweet that Matisyahu greatly appreciated that sentiment (“Portland Maine is officially now one of my favorite cities to play.”).  There was surprisingly little singing by the star.  Unlike his albums, where the sweetness of his voice really comes through, he relied heavily on the extremely talented and complex instrumentals of his band.  It was a combination of reggae beat mixed with heavy rock and trance music.  The guitar and drums were exceptional.  Unfortunately – – and this is my main gripe about the concert – – the volume was so eardrum-puncturing, head-splitting loud that the clarity of his important lyrics were mostly drowned out or garbled.  One didn’t really hear the music, one literally felt it.  The throbbing vibrations resonated physically throughout one’s corporeal body and clearly transported many in the crowd (mostly reggae fans including several Rastafrarians) to spiritual heights – but not (for this listener) necessarily Jewish heights.  I guarantee you his Portland fans will be wearing hearing aids in twenty years or less.

Concertgoers included lots of “interesting” folk dressed to shout out their need for individual expression and uniqueness – ah, youth!  The genuinely nice, young, friendly, and pleasantly rowdy crowd (this is Maine, after all) was extremely enthusiastic and very well behaved.  Theater staff  took precautions and had several bouncers with “Alcohol Enforcement” pasted on their T-shirts (upon entry to the theater, attendees were carded and when appropriate, given bracelets which allowed them to purchase alcohol sold there).  The bouncers weren’t hesitant about removing potentially unruly or unstable fans.  The whiff of marijuana was surprisingly faint (especially since “medical” marijuana is legal in Maine).

Matisyahu performed only one beatbox number.  I’ve heard him do amazing beatbox before, but this was not his night.  Although the audience was appreciative, he sounded like that squirmy 8-year-old cousin who, bored at the Seder, just can’t sit still and starts making all sorts of annoying noises at the table.

The final number (before his encore) was his best.  He played “One Day” and pulled people from the mosh pit onto the stage, until the entire stage was jam-packed with undulating, grinning, and adoring fans.  Sometime during this melee, a fan grabbed his yarmulke (yes, he is still an observant Jew, and wore a prominent maroon velvet yarmulke and tzitzis on stage).  At the end of “One Day” Matisyahu left the stage, but he refused to come back for an encore until his manager explained to the audience, “whoever took Matisyahu’s yarmulke needs to return it.  Right now.  He’s not coming out until he gets it back.”  Proffered baseball caps would not do.  The yarmulke was returned by a sheepish fan and Matisyahu  did come out for 1 1/2 songs.  Kol HaKavod, Matisyahu!

In announcing and advertising his “Festival of Light” concert, Matisyahu certainly made a big deal of his wonderful “Miracles” song, even asking fans on his webpage which version they preferred for his upcoming concert tour.  So it was a bit of a surprise when he didn’t sing Miracles at all, finally relenting for his very short encore, but only singing an extremely abbreviated version of the song that was devoid of passion.  Perhaps he is simply sick of it, but this fan wanted to feel something that was Chanuka-related  about the concert beyond the spinning dreidel.

I went to this concert expecting to hear the Matisyahu I knew from his CDs.  This was not the same Matisyahu, and even the familiar music was played completely differently.   That’s not necessarily bad, it’s just different.  Clearly the future will hold many surprises and we will see many changes from the artist, and I’m not talking only about beards.

Matisyahu is really pushing the limit on this tour.  He looked gaunt and pale and his most recent photos show dark circles under his eyes.  I hope it’s just his crazy schedule that’s leaving him a bit run-down (I am a Jewish mother, after all).  He is playing nearly every night and spending his days traveling 8 hours to the next venue.  It’s a punishing timetable and sometimes it shows (who is really at their best and isn’t crabby when they’re exhausted?).

My recommendation to Matisyahu:  turn down the volume, first and foremost.  Then come to visit us with your family in the White Mountains.  We won’t even mention the b-word.  Learn to appreciate that pristine quiet is also a form of music; it might help you find further inspiration and growth.  I can guarantee you will connect deeply with HaShem.  We’ll leave the light on.

(You can click on this link (it will be a long download as it’s a 14.7 MB file) to see the video I took of the onstage and surrounding crowds’ response during “One Day.” Matisyahu is somewhere in that crowd.  Hint: mute the sound, which is truly terrible.  The excessive volume completely killed the audio recorder device on my smartphone!)

One response to this post.

  1. Your above “review” made me feel I was there. Your details are so all-inclusive. Thank you. I hope the performer will read your blog entry, esp. the part w/ the invitation at the end. But surely, he knows of the meditations of the Bal Shem Tov deep in forests. (and I hope you and your husband had your ears well-protected).


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