There is only one word that can be used to describe Matisyahu’s ascendiary (as in it was both incendiary and I thought the man might at some point ascend to heaven) Bristol show on Monday, and that is ‘Messianic’.
The Hasidic rapper-come-reggae singer might have shed his distinctive hair and beard back in 2011, but the personal spiritualism of his latest album Akeda has only served to magnify the prophetic vibes emanating from him on stage as he holds his mic clasped between his hands as if in supplication. There’s a moment in the immersive ‘Black Heart’ when, as orange-lit smoke eclipses the band and highlights the outline of the white-clad Matthew Miller with his eyes screwed shut and palms raised heavenwards, he looks very much like the image Sting must see every time he looks in the mirror. He wasn’t even wearing long pale robes, but I know that every time this gig crops up in my memory he will be. The aforemented smoke is an essential aspect of the theatricality of his performance as it allows the enigmatic frontman to ghost in and out of visibility like a Canaanite chameleon as he wrestles with matters of exile, redemption and faith, all through a uniquely rhythmic implementation of the reggae ‘patois’ singing style (informed by his early incarnation as a rapper of Hebrew passages from the Torah).
It must be said that the first few minutes of hearing this distinctively Jamaican style of delivery come from a gradually aging, white Jewish dude are mildly uncomfortable. But cultural appropriation is a funny thing that can work both ways. Rastafarianism, the faith that empowers and informs the vast majority of reggae lyricism, shares far more imagery with Judaism than mere Christianity. After all, the latter day Rastafarian messiah King Haile Selassie was allegedly descended from Solomon and Sheba; both faiths place an emphasis on a history of exodus from a lost homeland and neither’s followers tend to spend much on hairdressers due to their rules about physical appearance. And who could forget that both faiths cribbed the concept of the city of Zion off the Matrix? Anyway, after this initial discomfort I found my reluctance waning in response to Matisyahu’s unwavering love of the music he adapts and his skill at pouring his own beliefs into a musical form built around spiritualism. The fact that he straight up forgets his own lyrics during ‘Broken Car’ I also put down to cultural appropriation of Rastafarian smoking habits.
But, though the audience had paid to see Matisyahu, they got two performances for the price of one thanks to the quality of his band The Dub Trio. As a long running, successful dub-reggae band in their own right, the interplay between the three members (Dave Holmes on guitar and keyboards, Stu Brooks on bass and keyboards and Joe Tomino on drums) is electrifying. At numerous points during the set Matisyahu would disappear into his smoke cloud like a fusion Frodo Baggins to allow his band to engage in a one band sound clash against the world. The three musicians bounce off each other to build up far superior versions of their singer’s own songs, most particularly on a stirring rendition of ‘Time Of Your Song’ completely based around Tomino’s steady bass pedal drive. But despite their name and devotion to King Tubby-style deep bass and keyboard jabs, The Dub Trio happily segue into metal, dubstep and post-rock without missing a beat. Holmes builds up Babel-level towers of guitar noise, coming off like an edgier version of the Edge, while Brooks engages in the important job of attempting to produce a low enough bass frequency to get the audience to soil themselves.
Neither Matisyahu nor The Dub Trio attempt to outdo the other, both allowing their considerable talents to blend and create an atmosphere both isolated and personal in the manner of the best pieces of religiously confessional art. For the former the end result is somewhere between Elijah in the desert and an extremely sun-averse Desi Roots, via a little tongue-twisting Detroit rap and a truly stunning one man rhythm and melody beatbox breakdown along the way. As the set ends with the euphoric ‘One Day’ the crowd are invited up onto the stage, giving one overly friendly fangirl the licence she was seeking to hug Matisyahu for a seriously uncomfortable length of time. I’m honestly surprised she didn’t anoint his feet with perfume, but there you go. Once free from her clutches, the musical Messiah strode out onto the crowd like Jesus onto the Sea of Galilee, except the Sea of Galilee was actively trying to grab his bollocks, before happily crowdsurfing out looking completely at one with the crowd, the world and his God.