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By Craig Rosen Thu Aug 10, 9:48 PM ET
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – It happened toward the end of Matisyahu’s 90-minute set. While performing his signature hit “King Without a Crown,” the Hasidic Jewish reggae singer knelt down at the lip of the stage and shook hands with a Mohawk-sporting punk. That one moment effectively illustrated the universal appeal of pop music’s most unlikely star.
The devoutly religious Jew has managed to take authentic reggae into the mainstream and garner a diverse following whose loyalty runs deeper than radio-driven fandom. That was made clear by Matisyahu’s show Wednesday at the Greek.
It’s been more than a year since the White Plains, N.Y.-based singer emerged seemingly from nowhere with his independently released “Live at Stubbs,” which subsequently was upstreamed to Sony BMG’s Epic label and spawned the top 10 modern rock hit “King Without a Crown.” His follow-up major-label debut, “Youth,” debuted in the top five of the nation’s sales charts in March, but since then the industry buzz surrounding Matisyahu has subsided. Yet fans at the Greek were on their feet for most of Matisyahu’s set, strongly suggesting that the former Phish-head born Matthew Miller will maintain a healthy cult following long after the novelty has worn off.
Wearing the traditional Hasid garb of a dark suit, tallit, a white shirt and a broad-brimmed black hat, the lanky, bespectacled and bearded singer commanded the stage with charisma to burn. At times, he stood nearly motionless, punctuating his vocals with a single hand movement. At others, he bounded around the stage like a light-footed prizefighter.
Backed by the three-piece Roots Tonic plus an auxiliary keyboardist and percussionist, Matisyahu and company dug deep reggae grooves that had much of the crowd dancing in the aisles. The trio of guitarist Aaron Dugan, bassist Josh Werner and drummer Jonah David was particularly tight, bringing to mind the instrumental prowess of the premiere reggae crossover act, the Police.
Matisyahu’s brand of reggae is more authentic than the version that the Sting-led trio rode to the top of the charts in the ’80s, but so far his two hits are only as memorable as some of the Police’s album tracks, not close to the trio’s indelible smashes.
Perhaps to make up for the lack of standout material, Matisyahu employed a few tricks to keep the set interesting. A rapper guested during one number, and a dancer made an appearance during another. At other points, Matis perched on an amplifier and showed off his skills as a human beatbox.
More important than the gimmicks, however, was a deep-seated passion and spirituality that flowed from his music. It was moving — even if you didn’t know exactly what Matisyahu was singing about — and transcended religious and ethnic boundaries.