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A clean-shaven Matisyahu played at Rams Head on Monday. He first appeared when he made a cameo on the Dirty Heads’ song “Shine.” When Matisyahu walked out in 90’s Adidas-style track pants and a tee shirt, I had to ask a neighboring audience member to confirm that clean-cut man was indeed Matisyahu. Not having received my latest issue of Matisyahu Quarterly, I was oblivious that the guy shaved his beard, much to the chagrin of many Jewish fans, a dimension I will not attempt to comment on, but one that is fascinating nonetheless. First song up from Matisyahu was “Crossroads,” also first from his as-yet-unreleased album Sparkseeker (to be released 7/17).  White hood up and sunglasses on, he stared out at the crowd. He stalked the stage in several steps (he’s a tall guy). Eventually he shed the hoodie and snapped off the sunglasses, transforming into something much more human than a musical star persona.

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Musically, Matisyahu is somewhat divorced from his opener Dirty Heads and more traditional reggae bands because the instrumentation is a mix of superstar-sounding rock and reggae. There isn’t jamming per se, they’re more rock-style breakdowns (more heavy bass and fast drumming), played in front of rotating, solid white light (again, akin to rock shows). This has been compared to “dancehall” reggae musicians. The backup band structured songs with a gradual build-up technique to bring tension that did not occur in the homogenous singing and somewhat monotonous rapping. Sometimes the drum and bass paused to let Matisyahu sing or rap for emphasis.

Matisyahu is not a dancer. Let me get that out of the way. He wants you to be impressed—his swagger when he first came onstage was off the charts. And he was damned enthusiastic, twirling around the stage and walking in a rhythmic manner. But when he threw vague gestures around his body without grace or style and it was distracting. I also discovered Matisyahu né Matthew Miller enjoys hearing long stretches of his own voice without enunciation, evidenced by the many times he stopped reggae-rapping to sing an “ooh, “ahh” or combination of the two. After his first series of (sweet sounding) moans, he sat onstage and contemplated the venue’s ceiling, generally. This is something he did throughout the show, face staring up, or around, in a blank way or with eyes closed, an intentional or unintentional attempt at being transcendent through his music. It’s very hard not to draw parallels to Matisyahu’s faith, although he may be more secular than religious now. Or maybe he was experiencing a new dimension of his faith.

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A memorable moment arrived when he “suddenly” decided to stop the song the band was transitioning into playing—“wait a minute.” His bandmates successfully played a backwards-sounding moment of music before Matisyahu dove into a patch of beatboxing. Beatboxing, in case you’re wondering, cannot look any way but patently ridiculous. If you weren’t looking, it sounded like authentic percussion. The bassist joined in, and Matisyahu rapped between lines, a breathless feat. The best performance of the night was during “Got No Water.” The trumpet player (did I hear “White Bulldog” was his name?) took the stage with his trumpet and blew out an amazing solo. Beginning quietly, it eventually screeched and screamed, sounding closer to a voice than a trumpet. After a long, mystical introduction, the music was more of the same. Other song highlights from Mr. M-Yahu included “I Believe in Love” and “One Day.” During “King Without a Crown,” the 6’4” singer leapt into the crowd, and surfed for half a minute. Without much crowd interaction (apart from “Thank you” and some version of “how ya doin’ Baltimore?”), it’s hard for me to judge Matisyahu on anything but his devoted singing, one-hand-on-an-invisible-keyboard style gesturing, beatboxing and flat rapping / sweetish vocals. Because I could barely hear the lyrics over the heavy bass, it was difficult to evaluate by his emphasis on the lyrical content. I would like to say I loved Matisyahu’s performance, if not for the fact that he’s kind of an oddity in the reggae world. He sang and rapped earnestly toward his audience and his band had sometimes great parts, but perhaps for the lack of energy on the MY’s part the show fell a little flat.

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Matisyahu’s was a laid back concert and somehow the performance felt less intense than the Dirty Heads. I caught the Dirty Heads a few songs in—the band stood in front of a backdrop printed with forested mountains, and stood on fancy Persian rugs (that really tied the stage together). Another reggae-hip hop combination hailing from California, the Dirty Heads played a musically solid set to an enthusiastic crowd. The five piece band have the standard drum kit onstage, but more impressively, kept an alternate percussion set and a separate drummer to the side. An alternate percussion set with bongos, people. Jon Olazabal, bongo drummer, played tambourine and insisted on hitting one particular cymbal (he had his own cymbals too) with his bare hand. (Hardcore!) They had good harmonies, a lot of jamming and two energetic emcees (Jared “Dirty J” Watson and Dustin “Duddy B” Bushnell). They kept the energy of the crowd up easily during their time onstage. They played “Dance All Night,” the familiar feelgood “Spread Way Too Thin,” as well as “Believe.” Asking the audience to sing out “MCA” during believe in the nod to the Beastie Boys, Bushnell declared, “If it wasn’t for the Beastie Boys we woulnd’t be a fuckin’ band.” The audience knew the band’s lyrics, so they sang louder and louder until the end of the set.

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