The world’s most popular reggae singer came to Sacramento Sunday and played a show in front of 4,000 ecstatic fans.
This, in and of itself, doesn’t seem like it would be all that noteworthy. Big stars play shows in Sacramento, if not all the time, at least semi-frequently. I mean, John Mayer is coming to the Sleep Train Amphitheater in August, right? And Carrie Underwood is coming to Arco in a couple of weeks.
But Matisyahu, the Jewish reggae artist whose album, "Bright Side of Life," has been at the top of Billboard’s reggae charts for six weeks, didn’t play at Arco for $45 a seat, or Raley Field for 35 bucks a pop, or even Harlow’s for 18 a ducat. He played for free, on the Capitol steps, at the Jewish Heritage Festival.
His opening acts? An eco-friendly fashion show, the L.A. Israeli Youth Dance Team and a raffle drawing. To be fair, a juggler, a face painter and Kings’ Mascot Slamson were also running around, but they spent most of their time in the Kids Zone, so I don’t really count them as openers.
When I first heard that Matisyahu would be playing a free show on the Capitol steps, I flat-out did not believe it. "You’re lying," I commented on a friend’s Facebook post. The man is an international superstar. He’s gonna play a free show at a small heritage festival? Yeah, right. Weird Al Yankovic, maybe, but Matisyahu? Not a chance.
I arrived around 1:15 in the afternoon and got confirmation that the Hasidic beatboxer was, in fact, coming, and the performance would start at 3:15.
My next thought was that someone in Sacramento must have compromising photos of the reggae star. Now, this theory is still entirely plausible, but I no longer consider it likely.
I wandered around the west steps of the Capitol, taking in what was an otherwise average heritage festival:
-Informational booths for places like Hillel, Chabad, Knesset Israel Torah Center, European Wax Center and, of course, The Sacramento Press.
-Food carts, heavy on the falafel.
-A street market featuring vendors selling arts, crafts, clothing and specialty foods, including 2 artisan honey vendors.
-A rock climbing wall, bungee basketball, a blow-up slide and other carnival-type attractions in the kid zone.
When I got there, the crowd was about what you’d expect at a Jewish heritage festival. There were a lot of families, a fair amount of seniors and a gaggle of kids. Nothing out of the ordinary. Everybody was in a celebratory mood, smiling and happy. I was often asked enthusiastically about my shirt, which spelled out "Temple Alameda" in Hebrew. No one seemed the least bit disappointed when I explained sheepishly that I was, in fact, a goy, and wore it for solidarity. Actually, I ended up being invited to more than one upcoming Shabbat dinner.
The only inkling of the concert to come was a smattering of hippy-looking kids and a few dreadlocked truststafarians floating around. But as 3 o’clock approached, the demographic began to shift…dramatically.
Kids on skateboards and BMX bikes started streaming in around 2:30 p.m. Next came the beer-soaked college kids and 20-somethings. The main contingent of the Rastas and 4:20 crowd rolled in in a haze of smoke just before Matisyahu was set to hit the stage
"If my boobs had mouths they’d be so drunk right now!" said a particularly buxom young lady who had apparently been spilling most of her drinks down her shirt.
By 3:15, the west steps of the Capitol were overflowing with one of the strangest, most incredible hodgepodge of people you could ever hope to see. From babies in Pampers to octogenarians in Depends, this truly was an all-ages show. Hasidic Jewish rabbis intermingled with high school punk kids and 30-something hipsters, all of whom wore big smiles on their faces.
It was a beautiful day. Nobody seemed to mind much that the star didn’t arrive until close to 3:45. When he did show up, his only accompaniment was a buddy on an acoustic guitar. He had a mellow, conversational tone that he maintained throughout the performance. At one point, his cell phone rang. "Should I answer it?" he asked the audience. He did, on speaker.
"Even if I weren’t in front of 4,000 people, I couldn’t understand you," he said to the guy on the other end of the line. "This guy’s from Long Island. Even New Yorkers don’t like Long Island…except Jones Beach," he joked before hanging up and getting back to the music.
His performance was great – a full hour-and-45-minute set without breaks (not counting several interludes to banter with the crowd and one giant hugging session).
He played a bunch of his hits, a cover or two, and some new stuff. He discussed his newly adopted veganism, his guitarist’s upcoming foray into "master cleanse," lamented that he never got to play football ("I had to go to Hebrew school"), recommended a book (“Eating Animals,” by Jonathon Safron Foer) and queried us on our local rivers. He named both the American and the Sacramento, and he even went for a swim in the former!
The show was set to end at 4:30 p.m., but he stayed on a full hour past the scheduled end time. It would have been totally understandable had he decided to blow through a 30-minute set of a few of his hits and ditched town. I half expected it.
But he did nothing of the sort. He put on a fantastic show and really endeared himself to the crowd with his playful engagement. He seemed genuinely happy to be here, playing a free show at a heritage festival. There aren’t many artists of his ilk who’d do the same, let alone be happy about it. But Matisyahu isn’t just any artist.
As always, the high quality, professional looking shots are the work of my good friend Ahsan Awan. The others are yours truly throwing darts with a point and click.
If you have any thoughts, questions, or angry diatribes you’d like to direct at me, firstname.lastname@example.org should do the trick.