See Matisyahu at Ravinia, Thursday June 26
Ravinia is about to be blessed with reggae’s most unlikely rising star: an Orthodox Jewish beatboxer who skipped out on his senior year of high school to follow the hippie jam band Phish.
Born Mathew Miller, Matisyahu (the Hebrew version of "Matthew,” and the name he adopted on becoming observant), certainly doesn’t fit the stereotypical reggae profile: He passes on the Ganja for the Torah, and forgoes dreadlocks for a traditional Hasidic tall black hat, starched white shirt and black suit.
Who would have thought that the Talmud could meet the likes of Peter Tosh and Bob Marley? While some may dismiss his act as gimmicky, others embrace it as a new genre and he is lauded for carving out his own niche, by blending Orthodox Judaism and classic reggae. Either way, Matisyahu seems to consistently pull it off; his first major label debut, Live at Stubbs, a live concert recording from the famous venue in Austin TX, has sold nearly 700,000 copies.
Ironically, the defining moment for Matisyahu’s career came back in 2005 at Bonnaroo, when he appeared on stage with former Phish frontman Trey Anastasio. Although Matisyahu had released his 2004 debut, “Shake Off the Dust… Arise” on JDub Records, a non-profit for innovative Jewish music, this event was his ticket to being discovered, by thousands of fans and a major label.
While Matisyahu puts religion first (he won’t perform on Friday nights in observance of Shabbat, with the exception of his performance in Fairbanks, Alaska, a gig which was allowed because the sun didn’t go down until 2 a.m. local time), it certainly hasn’t impacted his touring schedule or performances. And his religious beliefs don’t deter his rowdier female fans, but they shouldn’t expect so much as a high-five, or even handshake from the thickly bearded artist who was raised in a traditional Jewish household; Orthodox Jewish law prohibits it.
Currently, Matisyahu is busy at work recording a new full-length album, scheduled for release in late 2008. He’s working alongside producer David Kahne (Sublime, Paul McCartney and 311), and says this album is going to be different than the previous releases. “It’s not sticking to any one form of music,” he says. “People will really be able to relate to the lyrics. It’s for people who are searching, looking for inner growth—to expand and to find truth within themselves; within the world.”
While Matisyahu might not have envisioned he’d become an icon or a spiritual leader of sorts to droves of youth, he feels strongly about the personal journey and spirituality, and says he can relate to those who continue to search. “I didn’t get there. It’s a lifelong process of getting there,” Matisyahu says. “When a person thinks they’ve gotten there, it’s a sign they haven’t.” But, he says, “It’s a lifetime of moments; every experience gets you somewhere.”
Matisyahu performs at 8 p.m. on June 26 at Ravinia (847) 266-5100, or www.ravinia.org; $40 reserved, $20 lawn.