A young Hasidic Jew walks into a bar full of college students, and begins rapping a song in the style of Jamaican reggae.
Alas, there is no punch line—unless you consider that our subject goes on to become one of the most popular reggae artists of his time.
Matisyahu, aka Matthew Miller, initially rebelled against his heritage, like many young Jews. Raised mostly in White Plains, N.Y., he rediscovered his Jewish roots on a camping trip in Colorado and, later, on a trip to Israel. A self-professed Deadhead who was born too late, he dropped out of high school and began following Phish around the country. He later discovered reggae and hip-hop while attending a wilderness school in Oregon, and began rapping at local open-mic nights, eventually joining a band.
Upon his return to New York, he dove headfirst into Judaism as a baal teshuva—one who returns to God by embracing Orthodox Judaism. He also kept at his music, which merged his Jamaican-style toasting on Jewish themes and teachings with dancehall reggae.
With the release of his first album, Shake Off the Dust ... Arise, released in 2004 on JDub Records—a nonprofit label that promotes Jewish musicians—he became something of a cult sensation. An unlikely live album in 2005, Live at Stubb's, put him on most people's maps, reaching No. 30 on the Billboard album chart, and eventually reaching gold status. Youth, produced by Bill Laswell and released in 2006, sold in similar numbers (even as its reviews were not as positive), and the album yielded a hugely successful single in "King Without a Crown."
His latest album, 2009's Light (Epic), was produced by the more mainstream producer David Kahne, and edged further into spiritual near-world beat, pop and even a bit of punk.
By all accounts, Matisyahu's performance a little more than a year ago at the Rialto Theatre was quite an experience—with frat boys and Orthodox men in yarmulkes rubbing shoulders while Matisyahu toasted, chanted and rapped his way through a dramatic performance.
Expect the same when Matisyahu returns to the Rialto, 318 E. Congress St., on Monday, Aug. 16. Nathen Maxwell and the Original Bunny Gang open the all-ages show at 8 p.m. Advance tickets are $25; they'll be $27 at the door. Call 740-1000, or head to rialtotheatre.com.
The Reverend Horton Heat didn't invent psychobilly, but he certainly became its most popular performer of the last 25 years. Eschewing the B-movie aesthetic that many psychobilly acts adopted—horror, science fiction, etc.—the good reverend instead adopted a tongue-in-cheek outlaw persona that led to songs like "Bales of Cocaine," "Eat Steak," "Please Don't Take the Baby to the Liquor Store" and "Where the Hell Did You Go With My Toothbrush?"
Armed with a consistently crack band that currently features Jimbo Wallace on upright bass and Paul Simmons on drums, Heat (Jim Heath is the name his mama gave him) is a charismatic frontman and a hell of a guitar player. In recent years, he and his band have settled down a bit—they're no longer the earth-scorching hellions they once were during their Sub Pop days—but they're always reliable for a good time.
Similarly, Split Lip Rayfield, from Wichita, Kan., didn't invent speedgrass—in which rock, metal and punk songs are played on traditional bluegrass instruments—but they were the best practitioners of it I've ever seen play live (and, yes, I saw the Bad Livers in their prime, too). The gimmick was bassist Jeff Eaton's homemade one-string bass, fashioned from an old gas tank. But they really didn't need the gimmick. I saw them as both a trio and a quartet—mandolinist Wayne Gottstine joined later, then quit again—but they were never better than when they were fronted by the gifted singer and songwriter Kirk Rundstrom, who in 2006 was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Once he was diagnosed, Gottstine returned to the fold, making the band a quartet once again. Rundstrom passed away in early 2007, and since then, his three bandmates (Eric Mardis plays banjo) have continued without him. This week marks the first time they've played Tucson without Rundstrom.
Split Lip Rayfield and Hillstomp (whose latest album is reviewed in this week's issue) open for the Reverend Horton Heat at 8 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 18, at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. Tickets for the all-ages show are $10 for the first 400 sold, $15 thereafter, and $20 on the day of the show. Call 740-1000 with questions, or go to rialtotheatre.com.
Meanwhile, the very same night, across the street at Club Congress, you'll find more music being played on traditional bluegrass instruments. Yonder Mountain String Band blurs the line between bluegrass and pop—not unlike the Avett Brothers, although Yonder Mountain appeals slightly more to a jam-band crowd. The group generally alternates its releases between live and studio affairs; its latest studio album, The Show, was released in 2009 on its own Frog Pad Records.
Yonder Mountain String Band performs at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., on Wednesday, Aug. 18. Tickets for the 9 p.m. show are $20. Call 622-8848, or head to hotelcongress.com for more information.
If it seems odd that Matisyahu would put out a live album as his second release, how about a band that releases two live albums before heading into the studio? That's exactly what Austin's Band of Heathens did. The group trades in all things Americana: "Bumblebee" sounds like a more soulful Black Crowes, while "Look at Miss Ohio" is a country weeper with Pink Floyd-esque undertones. Meanwhile, "You're Gonna Miss Me" could be a Lowell George-era Little Feat outtake.
Band of Heathens performs at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., on Tuesday, Aug. 17. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8 in advance, or $10 on the day of the show; 622-8848 or hotelcongress.com.
The unfortunately named Gringo Star is another fine, buzzed-about backward-looking garage-rock outfit from Atlanta, not unlike the Black Lips, but with a little more restraint. They'll be at The Hut, 305 N. Fourth Ave., at 9:30 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 17; 623-3200.
As half of the lo-fi indie-folk duo Two Gallants, Adam Haworth Stephens has earned nothing but accolades since the duo released its first album, The Throes (Alive), in 2004. Two more acclaimed releases on Saddle Creek followed, and on Sept. 28, Stephens will release his debut solo album, We Live on Cliffs (Saddle Creek), whose higher production values enhance its fleshed-out, romantic leanings.
Adam Haworth Stephens performs at an all-ages show at Solar Culture Gallery, 31 E. Toole Ave., on Saturday, Aug. 14. GoldenAlphabet opens at 9:30 p.m. $8; 884-0874.
Club Congress' Optimist Club, which takes place every Thursday night, has garnered a reputation for having the freshest-ass dance jams of the day. But lately, there's been a little experimenting going on: A couple weeks ago, Opti Club brought in renowned Brazilian DJs The Twelves to spin, and this week, things really get weird. Former Tucsonan (and current Australian resident) Bob Log III—the monkey-pawed former half of Doo Rag who plays Delta blues like his hands are on fire, and sings into a telephone mic embedded in a helmet—will be the special guest. Expect lots of the usual Opti Club shenanigans, with some extras—go-go dancers, anyone? How 'bout a boob with that scotch? Things get rolling at 9:30 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 12, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Admission is free with an Optimist Club card, or $3 without; 622-8848.
ON THE BANDWAGON
Cyndi Lauper at AVA at Casino del Sol on Sunday, Aug. 15; The Ataris, Gasoline Heart and Don't Panic at Club Congress next Thursday, Aug. 19; Five Bands for Five Bucks featuring Brian Lopez, Shaun Harris, The Ghost Dove, The Runaway Five and Dead Western Plains at the Rialto Theatre on Friday, Aug. 13; Acorn Bcorn, Gentleman Jesse and His Men and The Barreracudas at Vaudeville on Saturday, Aug. 14; Second Saturdays Downtown on Saturday, Aug. 14, at various downtown locations; The Phenomenauts at Club Congress on Saturday, Aug. 14; the Surf Roots Tour featuring Anuhea, The Green, The Wiley One and Tamarama at The Hut on Friday, Aug. 13; Chubbish Rubbish CD-release show at The Rock on Friday, Aug. 13; Agent Ribbons, Acorn Bcorn and Gary Bear at Solar Culture Gallery on Tuesday, Aug. 17.