Review: Matisyahu returns to Eugene with packed show at WOW Hall

Matisyahu brought his heavily improvised concert to WOW Hall on Tuesday, July 11. A child looks on as he sits on his parents shoulders. (Sararosa Davies/Emerald)

On July 11, Jewish-American reggae musician and beatboxing star Matisyahu returned to Eugene for the first time since 2009. The singer gained popularity over his 15-year career for his unique blend of reggae and hip-hop with underlying Jewish themes. His return to Oregon was a homecoming.

Matisyahu, born Matthew Paul Miller, has had a wide-ranging career. He left his hometown of White Plains, New York, for Oregon in the late ‘90s, and started MC-ing in Bend soon after. He became a one-of-a-kind Orthodox Jewish musician — beat boxing his way through songs about Judaism and God — all while wearing a black coat and hat or ritual Jewish head covering, kippah.

A few years ago, he left his strict religious practices to explore different types of Judaism. Still, Matisyahu’s music and live shows evoke a spiritual experience for the audience regardless of its religious denomination. WOW Hall was packed with a very Eugene crowd Tuesday night: middle-aged white people with kids in tie-dye joined students looking for a good time. Older women wearing patchouli perfume swayed their hips, while a few young men and women in kippot nodded their heads to the beat.

Matisyahu’s new album “Undercurrents” aims to recreate some of his live improvisational magic. The first set, five or six songs long, melded together into one long jam. Sometimes Miller’s spiritually articulate lyrics and beatboxing were lost beneath the band’s resounding sound, but his rapping rose high above the cacophony on “Step Out Into The Light.”

Each band member played a solo at some point, but they sprawled on for a touch longer than they needed to. Bending songs around new riffs made the experience just foreign enough for avid fans to wonder if the artist is stepping in a new direction. With each track melting into the next, it became hard to differentiate between them.

Songs from “Undercurrents” like “Step Out into the Light” and “Driftin’” took on a heavier, jam-bandy feeling. These tracks were closer to psychedelic rock than the reggae Matisyahu is known for. But the second set contrasted directly with the first. Songs such as  “Warrior Sunshine” felt almost orchestral. They were musically lighter than the content from the album, but still complicated and sprawling.

In “Step Out Into The Light,” Matisyahu raps: “To the people on they grind / To the country out its mind / Half grins / Half spun like a dreidel.” He’s not singing as much about psalms or Jerusalem, but instead easing into a more general spirituality. He’s not quite the same artist he was when he began his career, but this direction still suits him.

Matisyahu’s show at WOW Hall cued into how the artist might be more of a musical chameleon than casual audiences realize. He’s constantly changing, but his merch still has the Star of David on it. He may not be the black hatter he once was. But he can still bring the groove to Eugene or anywhere else.

Check out Matisyahu’s “Step Out Into The Light” below:

Follow Sararosa on Twitter @srosiedosie.

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