Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Oogee Wawa, Matisyahu

OK, this was kind of a weird show.

Let me start by saying that I've come to love Matisyahu. He first broke onto the scene in the early 2000's, and for awhile he was the latest hot thing, the Reggae Rabbi, making the rounds on all of the late night shows. He no longer dresses the part of the Hasidic Jew, and he's sort of dropped off music industry radar in recent years. What he hasn't stopped doing is turning in killer albums, like 2014's Akeda and 2017's Undercurrent, which is why he's been high on my bucket list of bands and musicians I've been wanting to see live.

I missed him last year at the Paramount (or maybe it was late 2017). So when I saw he was scheduled to play there this March, I asked Denise if she was interested in going. If it had been a Saturday, she might have said yes. However, since it was a Sunday night show, and she has to get up for work early, she passed. Undaunted, I bought a ticket (two actually) for myself.

As you can tell by this blog, I've had a busy week musically. I saw Gogol Bordello at The Space last Wednesday, The Basals and friends in Smithtown on Friday, The Hank Stone Band and friends in Lindenhurst on Saturday, and here I was again on Sunday with tickets to Matisyahu at The Paramount in Huntington. That's a lot of music (and a lot of writing, which is why this blog entry is a day or so late).

On Saturday night, after getting back from the Lindenhurst show, I found an email in my box stating that a touring Long Island band called Oogee Wawa would be opening for Matisyahu on Sunday. I clicked on their link, and listened to some of their stuff. It was a good fit for Matisyahu -- they play a mixture of reggae, funk and hip-hop. I was good with this -- godawful name for a band, but pretty good sound.

I took a quiet day on Sunday, and made it to Huntington Saturday night with no issues. For once, I found a spot in the parking lot right around the corner from the venue, so I didn't have to park a few blocks away. This made me very happy (but my Weight Watcher's leader, who wants me to move more, very sad.)

I entered the venue at 7:15 for an 8PM start. I grabbed myself a copy of Good Times, one of The Paramount's finest (overpriced) pretzels, and an (overpriced) water. I also stopped at the merch stand and bought one of Oogee Wawa's CDs. (I have all of Matisyahu's.)

I settled in at my seat, and watched the venue fill up. The way the Paramount is set up, there's a huge floor with bars on both sides. For some of the quieter shows, they put folding chairs on the floor. Usually, though, they leave the floor open. Then there is a balcony, that has three sections in the back facing the stage, and a narrow section with chairs above each side of the floor. I was in the back section on the right for this show (which is where I usually buy my seats).

The attendance at the show wasn't bad for a Sunday night, but it definitely wasn't a sellout. The dance floor was packed, and the middle section of the balcony was mostly full. My section, however, only had a few people in each row, and both side sections were also only about half full. Oogee Wawa seemed to have a decent contingent of friends and fans there, so I suspect that was why they were added to the show so late -- to help beef up the attendance. All in all, I'd say the size of the crowd was probably equal to the size of the crowd Gogol Bordello drew on Wednesday night. It looked a little more sparse upstairs, but that was because The Paramount has those two extra side sections upstairs that The Space doesn't.

At 8PM, Oogee Wawa took the stage. They had just returned from the Mt. Snow Reggae Festival the day before, and they seemed stoked to be there. They were exactly what I expected and hoped for. Oogee Wawa is a five-piece band, with everyone but the percussionist involved in the vocals at one point or the other. Jesse Lee, their MC, kept asking everyone if it was OK if they did some new songs. No prob. They were all new to me.

Now here was my first head scratcher of the night. They only let Oogee Wawa play for about 30 minutes. OK, fine, they're the opener, whatever. But they finished up at 8:30, and Matisyahu and his band didn't take the stage until about 9:15. It wasn't a set-up thing -- Oogee Wawa was set up in front of the Matisyahu band's equipment, which was already all in place. It took the guys from OW all of about 10 minutes to break down. So the crowd was left there for a full 45 minutes between sets just twiddling our thumbs. It wasn't like Oogee Wawa wasn't going over -- the crowd was loving them. And I have no doubt those guys would have happily done another 10 or 15 minutes of music. It was a bit of the downer -- OW got the crowd all psyched, and then we had to just sit there doing nothing for three quarters of an hour. Oh well.

I sat there between sets, trying unsuccessfully to read my Good Times, but the light wasn't really sufficient. So I mostly just watched the Paramount's coming attractions screens, which reminded me of the club's greatest strength. I hadn't fully realized it, but Denise and I have tickets for no less than five shows coming up there, including two comedy shows. I give The Paramount points for being relatively comfortable, and for their usually good sound quality. I give them minuses for the lack of parking, the fact that they're all the way in Huntington (so you have to drive forever on a mostly single-lane New York Avenue, where you get stuck at every light, to get there), and for the high prices of their food and drinks. But there is no doubt in my mind that as far as booking goes, they are the best club on Long Island. Over the course of the year, they book more shows in all kinds of genres that I want to see than any other venue. Which is why I find myself there so often.

One of the things I found unusual about this show was that it wasn't actually part of a tour. I kept looking at setlist.fm over the course of the last couple of weeks to see what Matisyahu has been playing, but his last listed shows were in August of 2018. I thought that maybe this was the first show of a new tour, but when I looked on his website, I discovered it was really more of a one-off. He's doing a show in Brooklyn again next Saturday, then heading out to California the second week of April. But he doesn't really go into full tour mode until late May. So I guess this show was kind of a warm up.

Anyway, after a number of unsuccessful attempts by the crowd to get cheers going and to jumpstart the night, Matisyahu and his band took the stage, bathed in purple light. They immediately broke into "Step Out Into the Light", the first song from Undercurrents. Matisyahu was taller than I expected, and pretty thin. He was clean shaven, and dressed casually, in a red shirt and jeans. During this first song, and throughout the night, he danced and moved to the music just a little awkwardly. (When I was in high school, there was this tall, skinny kid on the basketball team they called "Big Bird". He was a little ungainly, all knees and elbows when he moved. Matisyahu reminded me of him.)

One thing I was surprised at, and didn't like -- when I saw Gogol Bordello on Wednesday, I found them to be a high energy band who created an air of pandemonium about them. Matisyahu, on the other hand, creates music that is a little more chill. But the sound for this show, especially early in the night, seemed overly loud and a little harsh for the kind of vibe I associate with Matisyahu's music. Not that I couldn't get into it, and it didn't seem to be bothering the crowd any. But the sound was just a little too sharp for me to drift into the kind of head space I wanted to get into.

Another thing I found weird was that a lot of the songs seemed to just end out of nowhere. When you listen to as much music as I do, you kind of get an inner sense with any song of how it's "supposed" to end -- you hear what it sounds like, and there's a certain logical place that it usually moves to at the finish. But a lot of the songs M and his band did tonight just seemed to end from out of nowhere. It was a little jarring.

The set wore on, and I got into it. One thing I was really impressed by was how fast Matisyahu is when he raps, and the way he uses his voice as an instrument -- sometimes he sings, sometimes he raps, and sometimes he just lets his voice pulse and blend in with the other instruments. I should probably say, for anyone who doesn't know him, that his music blends reggae and hip-hop with jam rock -- he's a huge Phish fan -- and he and his band are capable of a great deal of improvisation.

Anyway, at some point after he'd been playing for about forty-five minutes, he started doing a cover of Marley's "No Woman, No Cry". Then, part way through the song, as the band continued quietly behind him, he stopped singing and asked someone named Jason O'Donoghue to come up on the stage. He introduced him as a "special guest", and at first, I thought it was a musician-friend of his that I just had never heard of. When the guy got up there, however, it was obvious that Matisyahu had never met him before -- he asked him several times if he was, in fact, Jason O'Donoghue. Then, with the band still playing softly behind him, he turned the mic over to Mr. O'D. Jason then proceded to explain that this was a special song for his girlfriend, and he wanted to make it something she'd always remember. He then asked his girl to marry him, to shrieks from the crowd.

A moment later, Matisyahu helped Jason's girl up onto the stage. Jason then did the traditional one-knee thing. His girl wasn't mic'd, so you couldn't hear her answer. But she obviously said yes, because she then ran into his arms and gave him a big kiss. Matisyahu then resumed singing the song, while Jason and his girl, still onstage, danced to it. Jason then swept his girl into his arms and carried her offstage into the wings, to huge applause. It was a nice feel-good moment.

The set continued, and although the sound was no longer so strident, it seemed to lose a little energy. There was a lot of slow improvisation late in the set, with Matisyahu standing off to the side and joining in only occasionally. He closed the regular set at almost 11PM with a medley that ended in a cover of Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up". (I was hoping someone would post the full setlist on setlist.fm, but apparently I was the only site member that attended this show.) He and the band then left the stage.

After a longer-than-usual break, M and the band came out again. By this time, probably due to the late hour on a Sunday, a lot of people had left, so the dance floor was only half full. The band played a quiet (and somewhat lackluster) encore. Then they finished, and abruptly left the stage, without Matisyahu saying goodnight, or anything, for that matter. The lights stayed out for quite a while, as it seemed that the sound and lighting people were as confused as the crowd as to whether the band was actually done for the night. Finally, after playing the lights over the crowd, and turning them on and off a few times, they decided that it was it, and the lights came up for good. As I said, it was weird.

I don't know what the deal was with Matisyahu tonight. He didn't seem angry, at least early on, but his demeanor got stranger and stranger toward the end of the night. Maybe he got pissed because the venue told him he could only play a one-song encore because it was after eleven. Or, I don't know if Matisyahu imbibes -- I know he's a spiritual guy, but he's also into reggae culture, so maybe he was a little high. In any event, it was a sudden and unexpected ending to a relatively odd (if mostly enjoyable) night of music.

Would I buy tickets to see Matisyahu again? I would. In spite of the strange ending, it's not like I felt cheated -- he played from 9:15 until after 11. However, in all honesty, although I've been a much bigger Matisyahu fan than a Gogol Bordello fan up until now, it's hard for me not to compare the two shows. And although they, too, couldn't maintain the manic energy level they started with over the course of the whole evening, I thought GB put on a better show. (I enjoyed Oogee Wawa more than the NuFolk Rebel Alliance, though, so I guess it all evens out.)

In any event, I've got a couple of weeks before the next show I've got tickets for, so maybe I'll take a break for a few weeks. On the other hand, I see that He-Bird, She-Bird is out and about again, and that they've got an afternoon show scheduled at the Sayville Public Library, so maybe not. I'll see how my energy level is then, and maybe I'll sneak out for some more music.