A Night at the Plaza with Matisyahu

By on December 20, 2015
Matis 2

(Photo-Will Ogburn RSEN 2015)

“We play what the f––– we want to play,” Said a visibly annoyed Matisyahu – and thunderous applause broke the awkward silence. Interruptions were frequent during the Jewish reggae star’s performance in Orlando, and so he decided to address them. “Does every artist have to deal with this?”

The setting for Wednesday’s show at the Plaza Live was much different than in years past: a low stage that sat just above rows and rows of chairs. The feeling in the air was one of mellow appreciation, rather than electricity. Matisyahu no doubt did this tour for the fans – an intimate, acoustic show that served as a catalog for his entire musical career.

Matis, Aaron Dugan, Rob Marscher

(Photo-Will Ogburn RSEN 2015)

Each song was bookended by soothing silence, as Matis talked to his bandmates or the audience, or perhaps sipped from a cup of tea that he had onstage. This peaceful environment was refreshing for most, myself included, but it didn’t seem to sit well with a circle of fratty, Bud Light wielding attendees on the left side. This leads us back to our conflict.

Midway through the second part of his set, the peanut gallery yelled for Matis to play “Sunshine”, one of his most popular songs. He laughed at first, but as the chants became more frequent, he decided to stop the show and make an example out of them.

“Ya know I like that song, ‘Sunshine’, but honestly its one of my least favorite songs to play. I want to be more than just my popular songs…that’s kind of the point of this show. So we were gonna play Sunshine, but I don’t like being told what to do – so guess what? Not gonna play it.” The crowd broke into one of the most interesting cheers I’ve ever seen – applauding an artist for not playing one of their favorite songs, because it was what he wanted to do. This was the beauty of this whole show encapsulated in one moment.

Matis 12

(Photo-Will Ogburn RSEN 2015)

As far as what he did play, only the guys onstage really know. I made sure to grab a picture of the setlist but its seemed like more of a formality than anything, as they deviated from it early and often. Matis is incredible at conveying emotion, and the whole experience felt almost religious – a spiritual meeting of like-minded individuals.

This tone was set early by a duo of painters that serve as an opening act. Unconventional, but impactful all the same, they “live painted” to a mix of dubstep, techno, and reggae. This brought musical and visual art together, and was a nice appetizer for what was to come.

Painters onstage

(Photo-Will Ogburn RSEN 2015)

Matis opened up by calmly strolling across the stage, greeting his bandmates and the audience, and sitting down on a stool. It felt like an impromptu jam session with his friends that had somehow morphed into a sold out concert. They carried on naturally, checking their instruments and chatting with the crowd until the music started and they got underway.

Early in the set, he played “Time of Your Song”, and the energy intensified. It seemed that each member of the audience was having their own unique experience with the song – some were dancing, some were skanking, some closed their eyes and sat still in their seats. The relaxed feel gave way to cheers as Matis started beatboxing and moving his hand back and forth with the quick beat.


(Photo-Will Ogburn RSEN 2015)

His calm and positive vibe fit well with songs from his last album Akeda. “Star on the Rise”, “Black Heart”, and “Confidence” were mixed in early, and seemed to flow into one seamless reggae groove. Matis transitioned with fits of beatboxing, and a scarecrow-like dance at the sides of the stage.

Although everyone started off seated, they were all of their feet clapping and dancing when Matis broke for a small intermission. It was here where I talked to a pair of Jews wearing traditional yarmulkes about Matisyahu’s affect on the Jewish community. “He really opened up everything creatively,” said one of the men, “He broke so many taboos about expressing yourself.”

Matis 11

(Photo-Will Ogburn RSEN 2015)

It’s clear that Judaism is a pillar in the artist’s work – Matisyahu is Hebrew for “Gift of God”, after all.

Coming out of the break, Matis decided to tap into this part of himself. It was less of a song, and more of a transcendent talk with God onstage. The music became low and soothing, as Hebrew began to roll off of his tongue. The few in the crowd that could understand him yelled “Amen!” or “Yes!”

Matis 3

Even as a religiously ambiguous white dude, it wasn’t a strange or uncomfortable experience to me. It’s amazing to see someone so creatively free – so unaffected by the outside world.

It was just after this that he made an example of the fans screaming for “Sunshine”, and that just hammered the point home. No one was going to tell Matis how to create.

Instead of “Sunshine”, guitarist Aaron Dugan made a steering wheel gesture, and they played “Broken Car”. Another mellow, techno-infused track, the song brought the energy back to 10 after all the commotion.

Matis, Keiper, Brooks

(Photo-Will Ogburn RSEN 2015)

Matis grooved on – and on and on. He played songs from the early days where he was known for rocking a full beard, from his clean-cut yesteryear not so long ago, and from the present – a longhaired hippie type that’s consumed with self-expression.

Through all of this, we were clueless as to what he would bring out for the encore. He’d already struck down “Sunshine”, and a drunk dude running up to the stage demanding “One Day”, killed that too…what could he choose now? I heard a murmur of confused as he slinked off the stage like Shaggy from Scooby Doo.

Tim Keiper

(Photo-Will Ogburn RSEN 2015)

What hit us was a funky reggae groove that sounded straight out of a dancehall; this was common of Matis’s early works. He swung his hand like the Seminoles’ war chant as he belted out “Chop Em Down”. This little-known track off of his first album (’04) struck a chord with his day one fans, who excitedly sang it back to him. Those that got it really got it, and those that didn’t, could appreciate the giveback for years of fanhood.

Matis 9

(Photo-Will Ogburn RSEN 2015)

After seeing so many concerts, the robotic nature of it all sometimes gets to me: bands playing the same setlist city to city, zero deep tracks and no surprises.  There’s one thing you can be sure of if you see Matisyahu’s current acoustic tour: you truly don’t know what you’re going to get which provides wonder and suspense. Adding elements like these, Matisyahu at the Plaza Live in Orlando took an already special performance and made it an unforgettable one.

For more information and upcoming tour dates:





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