Matisyahu at First Avenue in Minneapolis
Matisyahu live on stage in Minneapolis (photo by Mitch Hanley).

Last night, Nancy Rosenbaum, our new associate producer, and I went to see Matisyahu perform at First Avenue, Minneapolis’ storied nightclub that was the setting for Prince’s Purple Rain 25 years ago. Matisyahu is a Lubavitch Hasidic Jew who raps about traditional Judaism over fantastic, syncopated reggae beats. I’ve been following his Twitter feed (@matisyahu) and was able to score a pair of free tickets by the Twitter version of “being the 10th caller.”

Recently, I’ve been enjoying reading Emory University professor Gary Laderman’s new book, Sacred Matters, in which he suggests that the streams of popular culture are now and have been serving as sources of religious expression for many Americans. The ideas of pilgrimage, ritual, devotion, transcendence, gathering of community, the betterment of one’s self — all of these can be seen expressed at movie theaters, concerts, sporting events, etc.

Matisyahu

With this fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but notice last night’s show in that context. After the opening act, I turned to a couple on my right and asked them how many times they had seen Matisyahu perform. It was the first time for the guy, but his fiance had seen him three other times: Indianapolis (where she was living at the time), Atlanta, and Chicago. She freely admitted that she flew to Atlanta just to see his concert. “Haven’t you ever done that before?” she asked. (Actually yes, Luis Miguel and Julio Iglesias on two different nights in Miami, but this was for my wife, honest.)

I explained (shouting, the show had begun by now) Laderman’s premise and asked the woman if she had considered her attendances as “pilgrimages” or as expressions of devotion. She replied quite sincerely, “No, this is purely entertainment. I am a devoted Christian and my experience of enjoying this as entertainment is nothing like when I am worshipping Christ.” We both agreed that, for some in the crowd on the dance floor, this was serving as a religious expression, though that is probably not how they might describe it.

As I watched the rest of the concert, the arms raised and lowered with the beat, the lighters lifted up during the quieter passages, the refrains chanted when the singer’s mic was outstretched to the devoted. There was certainly a liturgy here, even if these are just things you do at a good concert.

photo to the right above by Flickr/Stig Nygard/cc by 2.0

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4Reflections

Reflections

I attended a free local outdoor concert recently and I have to admit that I found the Rock tribute bands oddly uplifting. There was sort an outlaw liturgy at work that sent me roaming philosophically. It clearly did not have that affect on most of the zoned looking audience however.

It left me wondering if transcendence, like beauty, is largely in the eye of the the beholder.

I tend to work with music where the artists are very aware of this idea, and the idea of vocation as part of what they do, and the responsibility of it. I guess your post reminds me that there are many other ways of thinking about music.

oh, i think many in the audience would indeed describe their experience as religious!

as a church music professional i experience many beautiful and sacred religious experiences at church, but many, many more at concerts!!

This has me thinking about how I experience the religious side of life through pop culture channels. It makes me wonder, too, where we go to find our great stories and myths these days, since I don't follow a particular organized religion. Movies and television seem to be the most ready sources for me, but I am also always looking for my gods and goddesses reflected back to me in many arenas of life. I only follow one artist in terms of concert-going, Tori Amos, and I must admit I become a devotee at those times! These artists seem to jump into that role of mediator of the divine at times, don't they?

apples