Although I can’t actually remember whether he played “King Without a Crown,” that iconoclastic first single that a friend swore was going to condemn him to one-hit wonder status forever, it didn’t feel like Matisyahu’s brief history was being reinvented last night. On the seventh of his eight-night Hanukkah stint at the Music Hall of Williamsburg (insert the appropriate jokes about how Shabbat makes Orthodox Jews late for everything here), he played a more-than-two-hour set that was alternately pensive and meandering and quietly grooving and straight-ahead all-out rocking.
Matis’s music has always lived in the space between worlds — the secular and religious, the contemplative and the party vibe, the reggae and the rock. (Here’s an article about his new work, just to get you caught up.) Last night, the wings of the place were filled with Hasidic Jews who wanted to come to the show but were avoiding the dancing, and the tiny two-steps-up division served as a makeshift boundary for them. The crowd was all over the place — I was skeptical that it would be mostly Orthodox Jews, and afraid that it would be mostly hippies, but most of the folks there were just regular people. Good-looking people, too, as opener Mike Doughty pointed out repeatedly in his set*.
The couple in front of us were these Asian-Australian cool-kid transplants who wouldn’t have been out of place at the Yeasayer show down the street, which gave me hope that (a) the one-hit wonder thing isn’t happening, and (b) his music really isn’t as insular as my default listening position (jumping on the furniture around the house, payos bopping, shouting out Aramaic phrases at the top of my lungs) might give one reason to think. And when a hippie did finally pop up, it was onstage — this dreadlocked kid going wild on a whole array of percussion instruments, doing intense and admirable things to a tambourine.
Which brings us to the music. The band started playing before Matisyahu came onstage, which in normal circumstances I always think of as an egotistical pretense — the crowd raves, the band builds up, and the singer ascends to his place of glory. But when Matis came on, there was none of that — it wasn’t like he was ignoring it, but more like he was unaware that it was happening at all.