The Chasidic singer's "Festival of Light" tour, held at the Theatre of the Living Arts on South Street, seemed the perfect excuse to usher in the last night of Chanukah with a bang.
A funky mix of religious Jews in skullcaps and dred-headed jam band followers bobbed along as Matisyahu eased between driving reggae raps, beat-box riffs and soulful chants.
The diversity of the crowd reflected Matisyahu's growing popularity in the mainstream music scene. Raised Reconstructionist, Matisyahu became a ba'al teshuvah, newly observant, and went on to express his spirituality in several successful albums. The novelty of his transformation drew attention, and the music carried his career from there.
About an hour into the show, the audience quieted as a young boy came onstage to light the menorah. Matisyahu extended the prayer with a haunting melody that led into his newly released "Miracle," a catchy Chanukah tune that's already made YouTube waves with a video featuring the bearded singer on ice skates.
A Reggae-Flavored Hora
Just as a few fans commented on how mellow Matisyahu seemed compared to his performance at the Electric Factory two years ago, he ran to the edge of the stage and dove into the mosh pit. He did it again and again, two guards helping pull him back on stage.
"Turn up the bass!" he yelled, lurching into a sort of reggae-flavored hora around the stage, tzitzit flying.
The upstairs balcony vibrated from the thrumming amplifiers as Temple University sophomore Natan Schwartz danced in haphazard circles with his friends.
"Happy friends around, you know, menorah glowing, dreidels spinning, the words," Schwartz, 18, paused, groping for just the right description. "The total environment is so spiritual, it's so magnificent."
Nearby, Scott Yorker closed his eyes and swayed with the beat.
"I want it to go on and on and on," said Yorker, a chiropractor who works near the South Street theater.
And it did -- for almost three hours, as Matisyahu took requests and even pulled one guy onstage to sing with him.
He performed for so long, however, that organizers of the Chevra, a Jewish social group, had to turn away about 30 people who showed up for an after-party that was supposed to start around 10:30 p.m. On the flip side, Leon Vinokur, the Chevra's chief of operations, said it was amazing to be able to combine the annual Chanukah bash with a concert that could create "some real Jewish excitement in the city."
By the time Matisyahu finished, it was after midnight, and only a handful of stragglers stuck around to eat jelly donuts and listen to local Chevra musicians performing an acoustic set.
Jimmy Costello, a 34-year-old folk musician, reflected on the energy of the night -- all the dancing and singing, "and being proud to be Jewish."
"It's one thing to see Matisyahu do it," Costello said, "but to see all these kids doing it, too -- that camaraderie, that's what impresses me."