What makes reggae reggae are specific staccato rhythms. Without them, music can't be reggae. The consequence of such rigid criteria is that the genre is so highly stylized that even with dub and hip-hop elements, it's impossible for any reggae to be sonically unique and still be reggae. That's why reggae's success is less about the sound than it is about the credibility and persona of the artist. Reggae didn't start with Bob Marley, but the personality and credibility he infused into the sound were powerful enough to bring it to the world at-large. And though there has been no shortage of reggae since Marley's death in 1981, the artists that achieve recognition do so more through the audience's ability to identify with their personas. Michael Franti, Jimmy Cliff, Johnny Nash—even Sublime or The Clash—all have sounds not so far removed from the thousands of artists you haven't heard of. It is their persona and the message that shines.
It's true that there is a certain novelty to his ethnicity, but beyond that Matisyahu is just such a persona. More than his sound, it was his easy gait about the stage, the seeming trance of his posture and the sincerity of his delivery that packed a near-capacity crowd into The Knitting Factory on Tuesday, despite having little to no radio airplay or mainstream recognition, and Boise being a place where a Hasidic Jew might as well be a Martian. But it was impossible not to love the soulful tone of his vocals, the sight of his paius whipping in a circle or the corners of his talis poking from beneath his track jacket.
That isn't to say his sound is anything less than outstanding. The backbone remains high quality reggae, but nearly half of his two-hour his set pushed into psychedelia, owing equally to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and Radiohead. Several minutes of beatboxing contained triplet-runs, dropped and swung beats and scratching nearly unparalleled. Those several minutes were worth the price of admission alone.
As a special treat, he attempted to debut a new song towards the end of the set, but forgot the lyrics and started over three times, each of them with a large grin. It was a raw moment for so seasoned a performer, one he handled with exactly the kind of grace and earnestness that sets Matisyahu apart from his reggae contemporaries.