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Matisyahu, The Tabernacle, Atlanta- 2/16

“But the seventh day the Sabbath of the LORD thy God: thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger within thy gates.”- Exodus 20:10
“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye nations.”- Psalm 100:1

The nation’s fastest-rising music sensation, with a new album about to break the Top 10, sat down on Thursday at a quiet and quick dinner at Emory’s Chabad House before his Feb. 16 show in Atlanta. Most twenty-somethings with videos on MTV’s heavy rotation chase girls, or money, or drugs. Matthew “Matisyahu” Miller chases G-d. Matisyahu keeps kosher and keeps spiritually focused by spending his pre-show time and the Sabbath day at Chabad houses near his venues. Usually, ten to forty students show up to say hello. Because Matis had a vocal lesson that required a quick dinner, they had decided instead to dovan after the show. I showed up, not having gotten the memo. Six other students showed up, also having failed to realize this, and left early after getting a picture because their taxi had arrived early.

Chabad Lubavitch is a branch of Hasidic, or ultra-Orthodox Judaism, that follows the teachings of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Men grow long beards, wear yarmulkes, and are not allowed to touch women outside of their family. They keep strictly to halakha (Jewish law) and are known for their scholasticism, hospitality and outreach programs in their communities. Rabbi Zalman Lipskier, an old yeshiva (theology school) classmate of Matisyahu’s at Hadar Hatorah, is head of Chabad Emory. He treated every student, no matter their religion, as family, even in the face of his pop star guest and three incredibly photogenic small children.

The Chabad House was a testament to family normalcy: children being told to finish their chicken, the search for a missing pacifier, a teething newborn, a cell phone that one of the children was trying to eat. During the meal, Matisyahu, seeing my camera, mainly wanted to talk about the photoelectric effect and the nature of photons and how they are captured to make pictures. Seeing him sit down at a quick dinner and talk science reminded me never to pigeonhole someone, and I brushed up on my Einstein as soon as I got home. After finishing his meal, Matisyahu went upstairs to work on his vocals while the Rabbi’s children finished their meal (or they wouldn’t get to play with the camera). All this when, if you listened closely, you could hear Matisyahu upstairs singing to an audience of ten.

We left in separate cars. Half-an-hour later, Matisyahu walked on before 2500 screaming fans at Atlanta’s sold-out Tabernacle as his band played “Sea to Sea,” and became a music sensation again.

The ovation was enormous, and the crowd was diverse. Some were drunk. Some were high. Others wore yarmulkes, or crosses. Some came because of Matisyahu’s novelty, others came because of talent. Some came to dance, some came to party, and some came to worship.

Matisyahu disappointed none of these groups, setting his songs of praise and worship to dancehall reggae grooves and soaring guitar, bouncing on stage, spinning around with the exuberance of a five-year-old, balancing Hebraic cantellation with lightning-fast rhymes and beatboxing, and following the 100th Psalm’s instruction. The crowd started jumping during the second song, “Chop em Down” which Matis punctuated with vigorous hand gestures, rapping “Drop the staff/ Moshe rabbainu split the ocean in half/ march through the desert this ain’t where it’s at/ chop em down, chop em down.”

During “Lord, Raise Me Up” I noticed one woman, eyes closed, hands skyward, singing like you see on those TV shows about revivals. I was trying to get more closely in touch with G-d as well, and then the woman behind me grabbed my shoulder and told me “Dude, this is fucking awesome. This guy fucking rocks.” Only at Matisyahu

Midway through, Matisyahu played his hit “King Without a Crown,” currently #1 on Billboard Modern Rock, while jumping, spinning, doing everything but stage-diving (which is forbidden when women are in the audience), singing “What’s this feeling/ my love will rip a hole in the ceiling/ give myself to you from the essence of my being/ sing to my G-d/songs of love and healing.” It had none of the overproduced qualities of the Youth version, staying true to the raw power of its recording on Live at Stubb’s and featuring an extended guitar solo.

The ovation afterward lasted over a minute, with the band smiling.

Matis closed and encored with what many consider his two most powerful songs, “Heights” and “Close My Eyes,” sending most of the crowd into the night.

Towards the conclusion of the 90 minute show it was obvious that Matisyahu was exhausted. He had to restart the “run, run, run” verse of “Close My Eyes” twice, and his closely-listening band didn’t stop or restart, flawlessly improvising to meet his needs. Matis made the verse quieter, slower, and more intense, delivering it flawlessly the third time. Shortly after, he said “Peace” and left the stage.

Afterwards, he kept the balance between his two lives. He formed a minyan (prayer group) with Chabad Emory students and the Rabbi, praying for a half-an-hour, then came out and signed autographs for dozens at his bus.

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