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Blair’s DVD Watch: Jammin’ With Matisyahu, Phil Lesh and More

Happy New Year, everyone! Feeling adventurous? Got a little holiday cash burnin’ a hole in your pocket? Here are three recent DVD releases that will take you to some interesting and unusual places.

Matisyahu: No Place to Be (Epic). I’m not sure what it says about the surprisingly popular American Hassidic reggae star Matisyahu that I first heard about him on National Public Radio a couple of years ago. Critic’s darling? For sure. At first, it seemed like a gimmick: Matisyahu Miller, raised in Berkeley but now repping Brooklyn, puts out an album of dancehall-influenced reggae with lyrics based around Jewish spiritual themes and mixing island riddims with some speed-rapping in a Jamaican accent. Is this guy for real? Well, yes, he is. And if his first two critically acclaimed studio albums, Shake Off the Dust…Arise and Youth, didn’t grab you, maybe his just-released CD/DVD package, No Place to Be, will. It sure grabbed me: The 90-minute live DVD of Matisyahu and his crack three-piece band playing live in a club in Jerusalem is completely riveting. I had originally intended to watch it over a couple of nights, but I couldn’t turn it off.

Here’s the deal: What Matisyahu is doing is really no different than what Bob Marley (and numerous other Rastafarian musicians) did/do—sing about spiritual matters and the concerns of societal underdogs in a way that is both uplifting and deeply moving. Instead of a Rasta with dreadlocks, Matis has a long beard. And he isn’t talking about the exodus of slaves from Africa and their oppression in the Americas, but about the struggle of the Jewish people from Biblical times to the present. Marley and Matis both find solace in their deep spirituality and release in the hypnotic rhythms of reggae. Far from being just another white guy trying his hand at reggae, Matisyahu has obviously internalized the genre in a very deep and personal way. He and his group—guitarist Aaron Dugan; bassist Josh Werner, who co-writes many of the tunes; and drummer John David (Americans all)—play with all the skill, intensity and flexibility you’d want from a top-drawer reggae group; this is definitely the real thing. And so is Matisyahu. He never loses focus for a second, and his raps are both clever and poetic. Is it weird to have a white guy trying to sound like Shaggy or Elephant Man? Not at all—no more than Eric Clapton affecting Robert Johnson’s phrasing…or Jimi Hendrix tackling Bob Dylan’s. It’s sincere, and that’s what makes it real. Matis is also a master of the soft, ethereal yowl—it sounds like a prayer (and it probably is).

The Live in Israel DVD presents concert versions of some of the best songs from the aforementioned studio albums, interspersed with brief but illuminating interviews with Matisyahu and his bandmates filmed around Jerusalem—spiritually, at least, the concert is a homecoming of sorts for the group. Another thread that goes through the video is the musicians playing some inspired, Middle Eastern–sounding acoustic music in a beautiful Old Jerusalem setting. It blends surprisingly well with the reggae. All in all, it’s a spellbinding concert/documentary.

The short accompanying CD is more of an afterthought than a true product on its own, although it does include three of Matysiyahu’s best tunes (including, appropriately enough, “Jerusalem”) and two cool mixes (one dub-style) of Matis and company tackling Sting’s “Message in a Bottle”—you can definitely hear a little of The Police’s punk take on reggae on a few of the peppier live DVD tracks, as well. However, the retro remix of “Youth,” heavy on the flange and with the lead vocals pitched down, is not happening in my view. Still, buy it for the DVD. It’s quite a revelation (no pun intended).

Phil Lesh & Friends: Live at the Warfield (Ravin’ Films). Former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh has led a succession of fine improvisational jam bands in the Dead tradition since Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. Among the world-class players to find a home (however briefly) in Phil Lesh & Friends have been Paul Barrere and Bill Payne of Little Feat, blues ace Robben Ford, jam titans Steve Kimock, Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring, Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell, the strange but talented iconoclast Ryan Adams, singer Joan Osborne and many more. Along the way, Lesh and company have completely deconstructed and reconstructed nearly every song the Grateful Dead ever played plus tried their hands at a psychedelic busload of great cover tunes by everyone from The Beatles to Pink Floyd to John Coltrane. That Lesh, who is 66 and nearly died before a successful liver transplant six years ago, is still playing at such a high level, is something of a miracle. He truly has more energy today than he did in the last years of the Grateful Dead.

This excellent DVD marks a relatively short-lived P&F aggregation. Besides longtime stalwarts John Molo on drums and Rob Barraco on keyboards, it includes Osborne (who was part of the 2004 version of The Dead), former Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell (who’s been playing with Lesh solidly for over a year now), New York jazz/rock guitar phenom John Scofield and jazz saxophonist Greg Osby. Although I’ve made a point of seeing most of the lineups Lesh has put forth, I missed this one, so seeing the DVD was the first time I’d ever seen or heard them. I admit to being a little skeptical going in, as Scofield is often a little abstract and noisy for my taste, but I was delighted to see that he fits in quite well. He actually learned a number of the Dead’s signature licks (though Campbell handles more), and he doesn’t step “outside” nearly as much as I thought he might.

The risk Lesh took in creating this DVD is that the band had never really played together before these shows—though they obviously had rehearsed a lot—and it is often the case with these sorts of groups that they get better the more gigs they play, as the musicians become more familiar with each other and learn to listen for other band members’ unique characteristics, peculiarities and eccentricities. Conversely, there is something to be said for capturing an improvisational band when everything is freshly minted, as it is here. Except for a version of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” the repertoire is all classic Grateful Dead, from early pieces like “Caution” (originally sung by Pigpen but handled ably here by Osborne) and “St. Stephen” to familiar ’70s “hits” like “Uncle John’s Band,” “Eyes of the World” and the trio of “Help on the Way,” “Slipknot” and “Franklin’s Tower.” With two guitarists who are mostly not playing in Garcia’s style, the group goes into some very interesting new spaces that are definitely not familiar—and that’s a good thing! Yes, there is a fair amount of dissonant noodling in search of inspiration or some elusive thread, but there are also points in every song where the band falls in line together and just soars, with a smiling Lesh confidently in the captain’s chair, his bass thundering and singing at once. Those are the moments Deadheads live for, and this video has them in spades. I would have liked to have heard a little more Osborne and perhaps a few non-Dead tunes, but what’s here is still mostly very impressive and certainly high-spirited.

Special kudos go to co-directors Jay Blakesberg (heretofore a great still photographer, now branching into video) and Bob Sarles. The picture quality is simply magnificent—as sharp as any live video I’ve seen—and the way that Sarles’ editing captures the beauty and majesty of San Francisco’s venerable Warfield theater as well as the audience filled with dancing Deadheads is remarkable. A bonus DVD features a fascinating discussion with Lesh, Scofield and Osby talking eloquently about the art of improvisation and then engaging in quite a little jam session wordlessly illustrating some of the points they made.

Various Artists: Live at the Jammy’s Vol. 1 (Relix). It’s not surprising to find that Phil Lesh is also a presence on several songs of this first-ever compilation of performances from the Jammy Awards, which are the Grammys of the jam-band world (and nearly as coveted!). The Jammys have been notable through the years for putting together different artists from the jam-band scene—some young, some not—for unique performances. Judging from this beautifully put-together 100-minute compilation, the awards show frequently achieves an admirable synergy through its pairings. Over the course of nine songs, we’re treated to an astonishing range of material, and the blend of young and established artists feels seamless—a testament to the strength of their shared purpose (and, of course, their musical talent).

I’d be lying if I said I dug everything on here—for instance, the cut with String Cheese Incident (a band I like a lot), Perry Farrell and the Soulive Horns didn’t do much for me, nor did the meeting of the Disco Biscuits and Travis Tritt. But most of it is electrifying: John Mayer and Buddy Guy, both devotees of Hendrix, go toe-to-toe on Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” (backed by Lesh and drummer ?uestlove of The Roots). The irrepressibly odd Primus bassist, Les Claypool, oversees the strangest tune: Wearing a pig mask and playing an upright electric bass, he sings/intones a Beefheart-esque song called “Dee’s Diner” (about a burger joint in Sebastapol, Calif., I’ve actually eaten at several times), accompanied by fellow bassists Lesh and Phish’s Mike Gordon, as well as a female sitar player named Gabby Lala. Really freaky, but it works! Blue Oyster Cult is paired with moe. for a version of (what else?) “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” It starts out sounding pretty note-for-note, but by the end, they’re jamming the hell out of it, with BOC singer-guitarist Buck Dharma really wailing. (I couldn’t help thinking, though, it could’ve used a little more…cowbell.) Peter Frampton, Martin Sexton and Guster hit all the right spots on an extended take of “Do You Feel Like I Do,” complete with a Frampton voice-box solo and Sexton singing through something (not visible to the naked eye) that made his voice sound like a Strat screaming through a Marshall amp, a fuzz box and an octave divider—I have no idea what it was, but I want one!

Finally, I was floored by the performance by Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, with Lesh on bass. Adams tackles one of Jerry Garcia’s heaviest ballads—”Wharf Rat”—and completely nails it. Adams is a sight to behold, his greasy hair covering his face at all times (kind of like the character in the song, actually), but he sings it with tremendous passion and insight. And his band—especially the uncredited steel guitarist—bring great depth and an unexpected beauty to the performance. Adams can pick some gee-tar, too. Powerful stuff!