No Place to Be – Matisyahu
Matisyahu’s newest is sold as a CD that, as the sticker on the front states, “contains 7 new tracks.” In reality, they are just seven remixes. “Jerusalem” (from 2006's Youth) is redone with the help of reggae legends Sly and Robbie, and is mixed again by DJ Michael Watts later in the CD. “Chop Em Down” and “Warrior” are reworked by producer/bassist Bill Laswell and were included in their original forms on 2004’s Shake off the DustArise. Youth’s title cut is remixed by Adrock and there are two surprising (how did that come about?) takes of Sting’s “Message in a Bottle,” both a straight studio version and an airy dub take, reshaped by Bill Laswell. If one has Matisyahu’s other three albums (some of the tracks are also on 2005’s Live at Stubbs), they already have all of these songs (skipping “Message in a Bottle”) in their original forms.
There is, however, a bonus DVD, Live in Israel, containing December 2005 footage of Matisyahu and his trio, which operates under the name Roots Tonic and includes guitarist Aaron Dugan, bassist Josh Werner and drummer Jonah David. The DVD is the real reason to make this purchase, and to push the true selling point this package should simply be marketed as a live DVD release, with a great remix CD, rather than the other way around.
For anyone who has come to see Matisyahu as a Hasidic/reggae gimmick, a blanket judgment he has to deal with and work through, watching him perform in Jerusalem should be enough to prove his passion. It’s a little sad that a man be so easily dismissed as gimmicky, even if his label’s backing can be overwhelming and product turnout deceptive, such as the feigned newness of the tracks on No Place to Be. He’s taken on the label of a “gimmick” because his steadfast faith replaces the bedrock Rastafarian ideals that underlie most reggae, and it’s a big switch. Matisyahu gets a hard rap from some critics for being a sideshow act, but this critic sees the man behind the character and it’s easy to recognize (especially in a live setting) that Matisyahu believes in what he’s doing, regardless of the public or costumes that are thrown on him.
The DVD begins with Matisyahu and his band out on the streets of Jerusalem playing around a traditional Nyahbinghi rhythm, Matisyahu plodding the beat out of a djembe. Next, they’re backstage at the venue and come out to play a song in the same vein, Bob Marley’s “Rastaman Chant.” High points are “Dispatch the Troops,” “Warrior,” a demonstration of Matisyahu’s beat-boxing skills intermixed with some footage of the band getting in some outdoor basketball, an acoustic take of “Late Night in Zion” shot open-air on the streets and a beautiful “Ancient Lullaby.” The music video for “Jerusalem” is thrown in as a solid bonus to the bonus.
There is a line in “Jerusalem” that speaks to the depth of Matisyahu’s religious path: “Jerusalem, if I forget you, let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do.” No label can properly package that, although his first two CDs (the ones that took his name to the masses) were released on the Jewish not-for-profit J-Dub label before he switched to Sony (with lawsuits to spare) for his third CD, and it’s one reason roots reggae has always been a back-burner and relatively underground art (ignoring the cultural status of Bob Marley). Reggae is, as a sum of its parts, an entirely religious music and there’s nothing more proper than a man taking reggae’s sound and incorporating his own cousin faith into the textual history of the genre.
In a statement recorded while seated on ancient stone steps in some long-walked alleyway in Jerusalem, Matisyahu comments on his solid credentials as a performer for festival kids, and the like. Not only is he a creator, but a fan. “The world that I come from is a world of music and Phish concerts, and raves, and hip-hop shows, and music and art and all that stuff, so it’s a part of methat stuff all leaves its mark on youit’s a part of who I am.” This once Phish tour kid is now a man of his own focus. Even with label marketing and packaging, it’s hard to miss his spirit, one that burns.