Matisyahu, improvised

May 7, 2010, 1:04 a.m.

Jewish reggae hip-hop artist Matisyahu left audience members in awe last night at Memorial Auditorium after a two-hour program of song and discussion.

Matisyahu appeared with his long, curling peyos tucked behind his ears and the tassels of his prayer shawl trailing from under the hem of his plaid shirt and blue suit jacket. Accompanied only by an amplified acoustic guitar, he opened the show with “Estimated Profit” by the Grateful Dead, reading the lyrics off his iPhone.

Matisyahu, improvised
Jewish reggae hip-hop star Matisyahu (left) peformed at Memorial Auditorium on Thrusday night. The two-hour song and discussion event touched on topics ranging from religion to recreational drug usage (ALEX YU/Staff Photographer)

“That was the song that was playing when I ran off the road with a friend during an acid trip,” he later explained. “I’ve been waiting my whole career to perform that song, and this is the moment.”

The concert, hosted by the Stanford Speakers Bureau, Hillel at Stanford and the Jewish Student Association, was casual, with Matisyahu and his guitarist, Adam Weinberg, sitting on stools as if they were performing at a dorm talent show. They joked with audience members and picked their songs from suggestions shouted out by the crowd. The duo soared through “Thunder,” “Jerusalem,” “On Nature” and “Youth,” closing each song with a few minutes of vigorous beatboxing.

Halfway through the set, the crowd began to settle. Matisyahu removed his jacket and lifted the microphone from its holster to hold it closer to his lips.

“I wasn’t expecting him to be so captivating,” said Kehaunani Gunderson ’12. “His voice was everywhere.”

“He speaks through his music,” explained Jonathan Hirshon of Santa Clara, who has studied Jewish history with Matisyahu. “When he took his jacket off, you could tell he had become himself. His eyes were closed; he was deep in it and that was really him.”

After “Youth,” Matisyahu started to tell stories as Weinberg shook out his tired fingers. Loosely guided by questions from the audience, he mused aloud about recreational drug use, Jewish pirates, his newfound veganism and his approach to making music. He also spoke at length about a theme that rests at the heart of his songs — his immersion in Hasidic Judaism.

“When I was in college, I was interested in finding out who I am, and I figured I should start with my own religion,” he said. “I wanted to develop my relationship with God, who I believe in in a very real way. I wanted to have a life that was not at odds, not bouncing back and forth. I wanted something serious. What I found was Judaism.”

Matisyahu started attending synagogue and learning from a rabbi. One day he was given a yarmulke, also known as a kippah, and started wearing it.

“I nearly gave my parents a heart attack,” he said. “They were like, ‘First it was dreadlocks, then sandals, now with the yarmulke.’ But for the first time I felt I was representing my true identity. I wasn’t getting lost in the blankness.”

The concert was well attended by Stanford’s Jewish community, as evidenced by the number of yarmulkes bobbing up and down to the beat of Matisyahu’s lightning-quick lyrics. Rabbi Mychal Copeland of Stanford sat in the second row and sang along with “Jerusalem.”

“He is an amazing blend of different worlds,” she said after the concert. “He does what he does with incredible grace.”

One audience member asked how Matisyahu found his characteristic sound, a blend of reggae, ska, rock and hip-hop.

“I wasn’t really searching for it,” he replied, and nodding at Weinberg, transitioned into a second set.

The audience was quiet as they played some of Matisyahu’s most famous hits, including “One Day” and “King Without a Crown.” The pair closed the night with a 20-minute improvised song featuring picking by Weinberg and fluid rhymes by Matisyahu.

“You wanted to scream,” Gunderson said. “But I was speechless.”

Contact Adam Cole at [email protected].

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