Review: Matisyahu gets chatty with an enthralled Tampa Theatre
What happened Sunday night in Tampa felt more like an episode of VH1’s Storytellers than an acoustic concert.
Matisyahu’s sold-out performance at the Tampa Theatre had no opening act, but included a question-and-answer segment midway through, during which I learned that Matisyahu is not the serious type I mistook him for. Fame has not turned the 31-year-old Hasidic reggae musician into an elitist; he’s exceptionally comical. Actually, I could write a review solely on his conversation with the audience rather than the show itself. But let’s be fair.
Donning a blue crushed velvet yarmulke, tzitzit (a knotted ritual fringe) peeking out from underneath his shirt and payos (those trademark curls), Matisyahu appeared with acoustic guitarist Adam Weinberg and dove right into the first song, Sunshine, a new track boasting Matis’ delicate vocal maneuvers. Later in the show we learned it’s currently his favorite of his songs.
The crowd overflowed with applause, including the ubiquitous drunk guy shouting out from the audience. Matis acknowledged him by stating the guy was probably already drunk, but he was all right with that.
He followed with another new song, Open the Gates, showcasing his beloved beatboxing skills. About 80 percent of the show featured his beatboxing prowess. Before the third song the drunk guy yelled out, “King Without a Crown!” and Matis obliged, playfully saying he planned it for later in the show, but to keep the guy from yelling it out after each song, he would get it over with.
The audience ate it up, and afterward, Matis looked out into the crowd, expectantly waiting for the guy’s next boisterous bawl. Everyone laughed. The musician is apparently also a comedian, or better yet, a real dude, having fun on stage and indulging in interaction with his fans.
The show went on like this under the twilight sky of the 85-year-old theater. From Jerusalem and Warrior to Indestructible, fans raised their hands, as if Matis was singing their gospel. And it wasn’t just the 20-something crowd reveling in the mood; there were Jewish moms, grandmas, Jewish boys, kids and old men (not to mention a “Mitzvah Tank” parked out front). I even caught a stoic security guard nodding with the music and laughing with the banter.
During I Will Be Light, Matis stopped to dedicate the last part of the song to Buju Banton, citing him as one of his musical inspirations, who he coincidentally ran into earlier at his hotel. Banton’s trial in Tampa starts today and Matis promised Buju he would pray for him. So onstage, he did.
Acoustically, minus the accented off-beat, most of the songs sounded less reggae and slightly indie, slightly ’60s. I didn’t hear one “ye-yo-yo,” but I did notice a distinct vocal vulnerability that only a show like this could offer.
All of that said, the best part of the night hadn’t even come yet. It wasn’t the effortless falsettos, stripped down renditions or the intimate setting. It was him, unabashedly.
Sipping on a Heineken from his stool, Matis endeared the crowd with at least 30 minutes of Q&A time, detailing anecdotes about his family, religion, history and music.
Highlights included learning that despite his religion he swears and drinks. He’s more of a Bud Light kind of guy, but is also a spokesperson for L’Chaim kosher vodka. He went running along Tampa’s Riverwalk in a tank top and bathing suit (saying he knows he looked ridiculous). He did a brief a capella rendition of Bob Marley’s Babylon System, calling it one of his favorite songs, and later paid tribute to Cat Stevens and Leonard Cohen.
He candidly told the story about discovering his ability to beatbox: At 17, he left home, hitchhiked across the country and ended up taking geltabs in the middle of the woods at a rainbow gathering. Time, space and melody all made sense, and “was coming right out of my mouth, like an instrument,” he said.
Matis welcomed the back and forth with the crowd, saying how he enjoyed “drinking my beer and hanging with you guys.” But the show had to go on, and it did with a gooseflesh version of One Day followed by Thunder, where he incorporated a freestyle ending about New York City.
I’m not sure if he controlled the crowd, or it controlled him, because it vetoed his attempt to play a last song, and he ended up playing three more, including the unreleased So High, So Low followed by On Nature. But before he could close, the audience beckoned for more Q&A and once again, Matis gave way, for another 15 minutes.
No matter what was yelled, no matter how many people walked to the front to take pictures, asked to get on stage and dance or made song requests, he rolled right through it. He invited a little boy on stage to ask a question and allowed a persistent female who wanted to dance on stage to stand in the front row with her friends instead. She was so insistent on dancing that he changed the mellow last song to the upbeat Chop 'Em Down.
VIP ticket holders got to stay behind for a meet and greet, but the stepped away fulfilled after two hours spent with a man and musician who suddenly felt like a friend.
— Review / photos by Stephanie Bolling, tbt*