Matisyahu at First Avenue

Thursday, July 2, 2009 - 11:46 am

Matisyahu at First Avenue

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.
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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