Finnish goblin metallers Lordi may have won the cheese-tastic Eurovision Sing Contest with Hard Rock Hallelujah at the weekend, but in West London tonight there’s a breed of less theatrical musician plying his trade. Oh, and being a Hasidic Jew, his religious references can be taken with a pinch more credibility too.
A painfully long wait of two hours from the time tonight’s punters escape the showers outside until Matisyahu takes the stage are filled by a DJ pumping slices of old skool reggae through the PA as an eclectic mix of visibly Jewish youth and dreadlocked reggae fans rub shoulders – although I suspect more than a few kippahs will be ganja-scented by the end of the evening.
Taking to the stage in Orthodox dress complete with Borsalino hat, the sharply dressed Matisyahu and his three-piece band are greeted with rapturous applause, and as the bass and drums kick into Lord Raise Me Up the entire ground floor erupts into a head-bopping sway.
With his unique vocal styling, the scat melodies of the bearded frontman sail out into the smoke-drenched air with beautiful tones and as follow-up Time Of Your Song kicks in, there is a multitude of arms in the air. Matisyahu cracks one of his few smiles of the evening and the front few rows respond ecstatically to his call and response interaction during the bridge.
As the room heats up, the hat and coat come off for Chop ‘Em Down, which provides another happy-go-lucky dub anthem for Hammersmith to bounce along in unison to.
It is Jerusalem however that proves tonight’s highlight, and as songs that name-check Biblical cities go, this one blows the socks off David Gray‘s Babylon. With insightful, deeply sobering lyrics this outstanding reaffirmation of Jewish youthful identity sees many a skull-capped male raise an arm skyward, eyes closed, to sing along in unison: “Burn in the oven in this century / And the gas tried to choke – but it couldn’t choke me.” With easy listening melodies written with such devotion, it is easy to sense that tonight’s gig isn’t simply about the music, and for those so inclined a numinous encounter is evident.
Reunite Them is the only song to be prefaced by a spoken introduction this evening, during which Matisyahu informs us: “We’re stumbling through this dark tunnel trying to find the light, trying to reunite our souls with our life-force.” Youth is of course another strong chance for crowd interaction, and though Matisyahu doesn’t get quite the reaction awarded in his 8 Mile-style video for the bouncy number, at least one excited individual attempts (and fails) to crowd surf.
Despite his peace-and-love drenched, good time vibes, with lyrics such as “‘The LORD reigns’ will be proclaimed amongst the nations”, it is easy to see why “liberal” critics have been ruffled by the Brooklyn-born rapper’s religious views. However, having taken the time to appreciate the man’s artistic expression first-hand, I can say that if you can manage to listen without needing to accept everything you hear as gospel (groan!) then Matisyahu’s music makes for some very chilled, uplifting and perhaps even spiritual summer listening.