Hasidic reggae: It sounds like a gag from an early Woody Allen movie. And when Matisyahu Miller stepped onto the stage at the Knitting Factory Monday night, dressed in traditional garb — the plain black suit with the fringes of his tzitzit dangling under his white shirt, the wide-brimmed hat, full beard and payes — his three-piece band laying down the loping rhythms, the effect was so incongruous, it’s hard not to laugh.
But in the hands of the 26-year-old Crown Heights-based singer, the combination sounds totally natural, if not inevitable. His band plays a lean, idiomatic version of the Jamaican sound, and his reedy voice and phrasing show a distinct debt to reggae legend Bob Marley. But there’s no ironic, post-modern smirk or winking DJ showing off a Frankensteinian mash-up, just a Phish fan and late convert to the ultra-observant Jewish movement attempting to reconcile his love of music with his faith.
To be honest, there are some congruencies between the music of the Lion of Judah and the descendants of Judah Maccabee. The Rastafarians believe themselves to be the Lost Tribe of Israel, and some of their melodies have the Eastern scales and melodic ornamentation of cantorial liturgy. And songs such as “Chop ‘Em Down” and “Warrior” (from his JDub Records debut “Shake Off the Dust … Arise”) thunder with the same Old Testament fervor and apocalyptic imagery as Marley’s “War” and the Congos’ “Fisherman.” But there are no plumes of marijuana smoke, and instead of glorifying Haile Selassie, Matisyahu sings the praises of the late Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Matisyahu is not as musically traditional as he first appears. The band has the chops to stretch out the songs — guitarist Aaron Dugan’s leads split the difference between the round tone of Jerry Garcia and the more angular playing of the Allman Brothers’ Dickey Betts, and Matisyahu (a name which sounds more suited for a sushi bar, but is actually the Hebrew version of Matthew) does a pretty mean beatbox midset.
It’s an intoxicating mixture that managed to sell out the Knitting Factory. By the end of the evening, the question you’re asking changes from, “How in the world did they come up with this?” to, “Why didn’t someone think of this sooner?”
Matisyahu returns to L.A. with a show at the U. of Judaism April 10 and plays Gotham’s Irving Plaza April 17.