Matisyahu and Spearhead, with Michael Franti. At the Santa Barbara Bowl, Tuesday, August 8.
Reviewed by Matt Kettmann
As usual, the first band at last Tuesday’s Bowl show opened to an embarrassingly small crowd. But rather than complain about our hallowed venue’s early start times — that’s the way it is and ever shall be — it’s about time we adapt and learn to be on time. That’s especially the case when the concert’s first chapter is a show-stealing band such as Spearhead, led by the poetically prophetic Michael Franti.
Opening with soon-to-be-hits off his new album Yell Fire!, Franti immediately had the growing crowd rocking out. It was a testament to Franti’s inspirational groovyness, both musically — in his blend of funk, soul, rock, R&B, hip-hop, and reggae — and lyrically, in his upholding righteousness, peace, and unity. There’s no doubt that Spearhead is the soundtrack to the ongoing revolution against Western imperialism.
With the post-sunset blue sky colliding with the stage’s fiery orange lights, the first beats of “Rastaman Chant” began. As a white mist coagulated, the black-clad Matisyahu emerged, singing the haunting lyrics of Rastafari’s holy hymnal. Yet, being a white, Hassidic, “born-again” Jew from New York and not a black Rasta from Jamaica, Matisyahu only used the “I hear the words of the higher man say” version (not invoking the traditional “Rasta man” lyrics). That left the song’s collective emphasis decidedly on flying “away home to Zion,” a powerful notion not lost on the crowd — which included quite a few yarmulkes and at least one other man in full Hassidic garb — as Israel continues its war in Lebanon.
Gallivanting about with white tzitzit fringes a-sway, jumping upon tall speakers, and spouting his popular brand of dancehall/hip-hop/reggae, Matisyahu overcame charges of being a Saturday Night Live-like gimmick thanks to his strong musical skills. While not blowing away everyone last Tuesday — including this reggae-loving reviewer, who was wondering why it took a novelty act to make fairly standard dancehall grooves appeal to the masses — many were screaming wildly and singing in unison. Throw in some beat-boxin’ and a congo vs. drum set pound-off (but subtract that truly poor rap sesh from one of the star’s White Plains buddies), and the evening made for a Tuesday well-spent.
What made it memorable, though, happened around 10 p.m., when — after an encore of the radio-played “King Without a Crown” and his new title track “Youth” — Matisyahu was joined by Michael Franti for a sing-along of “Is Love Enough?” Aside from the fact that they were breaking the Bowl’s strict curfew, the image of Franti (who’s recently been defending Palestinians) and Matisyahu (who’s clearly pro-Israel) playing together will live long. Perhaps they were cut short, but not before their messages of revolution, revelation, and redemption were delivered.