Matisyahu, 6th and I, Washington DC- 11/3
The night before the biggest election of our generation, Matisyahu came to Washington DC. The venue was the historic downtown 6th and I synagogue, the crowd was at capacity and the mood was festive. The band took the stage first, and laid down their strong, power-trio dub sound. The band, consisting of guitar, base and drums, stretched out a bit, but for the most part, they were just there to welcome the man of the hour, Matisyahu. He took the stage, calm and collected. He was here for the evening, not the moment.
There was not a seat to be had before the show started, but as soon as the band made their way out, people fled their pew-style seats and made their way to the front. The stage at 6th and I is raised several feet about the crowd, and it is replete with stained glass and Judaica of all kinds. Matisyahu would tower above a crowd while standing on the ground with them, but from the stage, he was a giant. Dressed like he just walked off the streets of Crown Heights, or perhaps Jerusalem, he is a presence, mighty and noticeable. In his black skull cap, his white tzitzit, or fringes, his massive beard and his Chassidic garb, the only thing modern about Matisyahu’s wardrobe were his shoes, yellow and blue sneakers, right out of your local Foot Locker.
In the middle of Aish Tamid, he asked that the spotlight be turned down so that he could see his audience. There was an eerie red glare throughout the room as he laid into us his spiritual, biblically laden lyrics over his solid funk-reggae band. He had friend Nosson Zand out for a song. Nosson dressed like he had just walked off of the same streets as his friend, but he definitely brought something different to the mix. He rapped while Matisyahu jumped up and down and sang one of his signature melodic refrains between verses. Had the Beastie Boys been raised in a different neighborhood, this is probably what they would have looked like.
At one point, Matis switched microphones. People understood what this meant. He is a beat boxer second to none that I have seen. Guitarist Aaron Dugan used his thick beats as a backbeat on which to play on top. I honestly thought that the rhythm section was accompanying him, and it was several minutes in before I realized that all of the thump and every beat on stage was coming directly from Matisyahu. He is one part Biz Markie, one part Bobby McFerrin, one part Talmudic scholar, and one part Rastafari.
His is a band of professionals. Guitarist Dugan uses a lot of looping and sound effects to fill in the already big sound coming from the strong power trio. Skoota Warner, the backbeat for the band uses both electronic and organic drums and follows the band flawlessly. And then there was bassist Jason Fraticelli. Throughout the night, he was probably the most excited person in the room. And it was clear that this kid could play, hardly limited by his instrument or the genre, which can at times limit the ability of a player to emerge within it to show just what he can do although it was halfway through the encore when he finally had the chance to truly introduce himself. Matisyahu and Dugan looked just as shocked as the rest of us as he brought to mind visions of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey’s Reed Mathis, which is not a comparison that I throw around lightly. He played heavy on his effects, he fuzzed-out, he threw down big bouncy chords while playing melodies on top of them, he screamed along in the mic that Matisyahu held out for him. It was at this point that I realized he had a strap holding his glasses on. I can only imagine he has broken a few pairs in the process, his head flying with every note in his monstrous solo.
Matisyahu played songs spanning his career. He gave the crowds such favorites as “Jerusalem,” “Chop Em Down” and “King Without a Crown.” At times he was stoic, leaning back while Dugan took a solo, at other times, he did his Rasta dance and jumped up and down with the beats engulfing him. He climbed on the railings, he sat on the amps, he took the hands off those in the front row and hung on throughout whole choruses. After the show, he told people that he would stick around to sign autographs. His audience loves him, and that love is clearly mutual.