- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Hassidic reggae artist Matisyahu performed to a sold-out crowd Monday at a venue that could not have been more appropriate: the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Northwest. It’s a place where congregants come for worship services and concertgoers come for rock shows - a place where the sacred and secular not only coexist, but complement one another, just as they do within the pioneering musician’s life and work.

Matisyahu took the stage, which is also the synagogue’s main altar, donning what for him is fairly typical concert garb: black yarmulke, long blue-grey coat, olive trousers and a prayer shawl peeking out from under his long-sleeved shirt. Two menorahs glowed beside him and a stained glass Star of David shined softly from above.

Accompanied by a four-piece band, the 29-year-old began to offer up his spiritually spiked reggae tunes to his diverse audience, which included rowdy and not-so-rowdy twenty- and thirtysomethings, high-schoolers and at least one orthodox family with small children in tow.

The set list drew from both of the artist’s studio albums: his 2004 debut, “Shake Off the Dust… Arise,” and 2006’s “Youth,” which hit No. 4 on the Billboard 200. The musician also threw in selections from his 2005 hit, “Live at Stubb’s,” and sampled tracks off both his recently released EP, “Shattered,” and forthcoming disc, “Light.”

Many of the songs performed saw embellishment by way of added instrumental sections and solos, indicative of Matisyahu’s musical roots; as a teenager, he followed the jam band Phish, and later, in 2005, he gained prominence when the group invited him onstage during its set at Bonnaroo. The reggae artist continues to perform frequently on the festival circuit and draw crowds from the jam band world.

It was during these moments of improvisation, when Matisyahu stood back to watch and listen, that he seemed most content and relaxed. For much of the rest of the show, he seemed to be in a near-trance, closing his eyes, staring intensely off into space or rocking back and forth. Perhaps it was the Holy Spirit he sings of that seized him so, which is hard to fault him for, but it did make for a tenuous connection between the performer and his listeners at times.

Also problematic was the show’s pacing. While most of the songs Matisyahu played represent his uptempo work (at least on record), he frequently took liberties with rhythm in the live setting, slowing things down until they reached a tiny, quiet place, then ratcheting them back up until they spun wildly throughout the room. The effect was compelling the first time, but after several repetitions, it began to feel as if the audience were on an endless roller coaster.

Toward the end of the concert and into the encore, Matisyahu picked up momentum and got into a bouncy groove with tunes like “King Without a Crown” and “Jerusalem.” His fans responded in jubilation.

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