'Twas the night before Christmas, but plenty was stirring, especially at Matisyahu's sold-out gig at the Theatre of Living Arts. There were other alternative Christmas Eve events around town showcasing Jewish culture, but nothing like this two-hour concert-cum-Hanukkah celebration, complete with a giant mirror-dreidel overhead and outsized menorah onstage.
The popular Brooklyn-based Jewish reggae artist dispensed various holiday greetings, welcoming all to his sixth annual Festival of Light mini-tour: "And if you're an atheist, happy Saturday night." But the focus was on Hanukkah, fitting for the West Chester native, whose first name, Matthew, translates into the Hebrew Matisyahu, also the monicker of a historic Maccabee leader central to the Jewish holiday.
The generous set was a genuine tour de force, with hits like "King Without a Crown," "One Day," and the new "Miracle" considerably intensified. The lanky Matisyahu - who shaved off his beard recently, remaining devoutly Jewish if no longer Hasidic - whirled around the stage and vocalized in a high ethereal voice or a cadenced dance-hall reggae "singjay" style.
The backing Dub Trio provided spacey soundscapes, rippling with the guitar lines (often enhanced by an E-bow) of D.P. Holmes, or convulsed into bursts of furious prog-reggae power. The overall blend impressed from the opener, "Chop 'Em Down," to the closer, "Opening the Gates."
On Saturday night, sonic waves of holiday tradition - and manifestations of the zeitgeist - were inescapable. On a car ride to the TLA, one could hear WPRB's DJ Jon Solomon well into his 23d annual 24-hour roller coaster of Christmas music airplay; the punk 'n' roll of "Christmas in the City (Ain't Too Pretty)" by Philly's Jukebox Zeros melted into the late Alex Chilton's moving solo take on "The Christmas Song."
Moments later, at the TLA, the opener, Cris Cab, surged into a pop-ska version of Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks," perhaps the year's most inescapable song (even last week's season finale of Showtime's Homeland featured Brody's teen daughter rockin' it on her iPod).