So here’s something you don’t see everyday: A Hasidic Jew, clad in traditional garments from head to toe, stands atop a speaker on the side of a huge stage, a band playing groove-based reggae rhythms under him as he’s illuminated by a bright, overpowering spotlight. Matisyahu has become astoundingly popular due to his song “King Without a Crown” (from the JDub release “Youth”); the question now is whether he’s got enough talent to bust out of the novelty-act ghetto.
There’s plenty of evidence he will. Rapid-fire flow like his is not just unusual, it’s virtually unheard of, and his onstage confidence is engaging even as the beats get repetitive. He’s streamlined his show from earlier appearances this year at Coachella and Bonnaroo, leaving the proselytizing for temple instead of ranting onstage about the Torah; it leaves him plenty of time to connect through his music.
His crowd is one of the most diverse in recent memory: Full families with young children sat alongside twentysomething hip-hop fans, and all of them sang along. He smiles before unleashing a barrage of rhymes, about God, Jerusalem and love, spitting out reggae twills like a pure-bred Rastafari while his crack band stays on top of every complicated downbeat rhythm in the repertoire.
Opener Michael Franti and Spearhead were the perfect kickoff for this multicultural party. Their peace-and-unity yells of “How you feeling?” could be seen in some situations as corny, but here they came off as celebratory. Franti and Spearhead’s new album, “Yell Fire” (Anti-), is a melange of folky, groovy antiwar cuts that beg for sing-alongs, and this enthusiastic audience was happy to oblige.