The Jewish reggae rapper returns
Matisyahu looks different today than he did when fans were first introduced to him. The singer broke through in 2005 with the live version of his uplifting, beatboxing, reggae-infused song “King Without A Crown” (from the album “Live at Stubb’s”) and instantly stood out. Of Jewish faith, the singer had a beard, wore a kippah and dressed in the style of Orthodox Judaism.
In December 2011, he caused quite a stir online when he tweeted a photo of himself clean shaven. Since then, he has also ditched the Chassidic clothes and now dons regular street wear, but his faith hasn’t changed.
“For Judaism, it’s beyond practicing; it’s just a part of who I am,” he says. “I do practice in certain ways, but it goes much deeper than just the practice of it.”
Flash forward to 2018, and Matisyahu is on his sixth studio album, “Undercurrent” — released in May 2017. He still finds himself creating music in the same style and genres he’s known for, but in this era of his career, he finds himself more focused on his band than on his solo singing efforts.
“I felt, OK, first I have to have the right ingredients and the right people, and then fuck with the process. Then we have to create the right vision and the right music together, and once we can do that live and in an improvisational setting, we can create songs out of that, and that’s the “Undercurrent” record, and then we take that on tour and develop it more. It becomes much more about the band and about the unit as opposed to the individual,” he says. “In the live situation, I don’t really want it to be just me as a focal point. I see myself more as a captain on a ship or something like that, or part of a crew, and our mission is definitely equally shared between the five members that are on stage.”
As a result, he feels his shows are “absolutely” more free flowing than they have been in the past. In fact, he doesn’t even write set lists for his shows.
“I’m getting to a point now where I want to start writing set lists, but, for the last two or three years, I’ve pretty much stayed away from that and any kind of set list. So we start the show with one song that we talk about literally seconds before we go on stage, and then the show flows the way it flows. That’s a huge part of what we do now,” he says.
Matisyahu has played Des Moines a number of times and speaks highly of the city. He’s even a veteran of 80/35, having played the second year of the festival in 2009.
“Des Moines is one of those towns we’ve been coming through for a bit. It was kind of one of those cities when I started touring for awhile that I realized in the Midwest — that it’s not just New York and L.A., but that there’s really incredible cities in-between in the middle of the country, and Des Moines is one of those first cities that I really recognized that,” he says.
Last time he was in town was in July 2017 for a show at Wooly’s. He remembers meeting Dan Koenig from Ichi Bike and trying out one of his two-wheeled products.
“He has this crazy bike he let me use, those ones with the motors,” he says. “We did a really nice bike ride last time; it was cool.”
His former tour manager also lives in the metro, and they meet up whenever he comes through.
His latest Des Moines appearance will take place at Wooly’s on Wednesday, Feb. 28. Those thinking it will be a robotic, straight up and down version of his studio material will be sorely mistaken. No set lists, a self-described lover of improvisational music and a noted Phish fan, means he and his band’s performances take on a life of their own.
“I came out as a live performance act with ‘Live at Stubb’s,’ and that’s been my bread and butter and where I’ve put most of my focus for the last 15 years,” he says. ♦