If music is all about the journey, inside and far out, then those who make the pilgrimage to the Soul Kitchen Music Hall in downtown Mobile tonight had better pack their bags. Co-headlining the 7:30 p.m. show with West Coast group The Dirty Heads is Matisyahu. The 33-year-old phenom has built a career over the last decade sharing his philosophy, spirituality and creativity with audiences around the world, covering a spectrum that pings from rap to reggae to pop, with reverberating Hebrew chanting interjected along the way. That won't change when he takes the stage tonight, though plenty more has. Gone is the long, wiry beard and yarmulke that helped identify Matisyahu's devotion as a Hasidic Jew. Instead, his tall, then frame is topped with a face that's clean-shaven with a shock of blond hair up top.
And if there's a new glint evident in his eyes as he bounds across the stage — and quite possibly into the crowd's eager embrace — it's possibly due to the evolution that's been sparked in his soul and is being filtered through his connectivity with those around him.
Enjoying the calm before a recent concert in Chattanooga, Tenn., Matisyahu spoke with the Press-Register about the changes he's experienced, and how his new album, "Spark Seeker," is infused with that transformation.
A vegan who still keeps kosher, he said his "connection to God" strengthened over the last couple of years as he peeled away the layer of his being. Be it his outer image, his ideas on right and wrong, the rules of his religion — it was all stripped bare, he said.
"I found that when I began to do that I found something freeing happening, something opening up inside of me — emotionally, creatively, spiritually," Matisyahu said. "And I'm still in that process now."
Although it took nearly two years to write, record and master, about "Spark Seeker" he said, "When I now listen back to those songs, they resonate completely with this change that I was ready to make."
In such a context it's no surprise the album begins with the track "Crossroads." But as an introduction to the project, the tight weave of beat, a rabbi's chants and the chorus of "I'm kicking up dirt when I fly by" it seems like Matisyahu has moved far past the territory that damned Robert Johnson, and onto a firmer path.
And judging by the tour videos available all over the net from earlier this year, it's more like he's kicking up dirt as he lands on that path.
Devotees of Matisyahu's "Live at Stubb's" albums, will recognize the man they hear on "Spark Seeker," though there's a pop overtone to many of the songs that liken it more to his later album "Youth," with all sorts of twist.
And it's a good thing, especially on songs like "Breathe Easy," which is dripping with the trademark synthesizer strands and beats of producer KoOoLkOjak, who is a newcomer to Matisyahu's soundboard. In fact, if you listen to everything on that track sans vocals, it easily resonates as a 90s anthem. And for all the best reasons.
That "Kojak sound" really does make this a unique, team effort, according to Matisyahu. In fact, at least five of the tracks were made when he took his producer to Israel for the first time. The most autobiographical of them is "Tel Aviv'n," which they laid down in the studio after a day spent in Jeeps in the desert.
"It was Independence Day in Israel and there were these jets flying over us so we went into the studio that night and wrote a song based on the experience of that day," Matisyahu said. Another result of that trip was the album's cover photo, which depicts a Bedouin girl with a mischievous grin poised under locks flowing like sparks from a campfire.
There's range on "Spark Seeker," which is why it's much more than just tunes that move heads and shoulders.
Whether by beatbox on songs like the first radio single "Sunshine" and "Summer Wind" — which is exactly what its title infers, complete with an easy saxophone and strums from a lute-like instrument called a tanbur — or more traditional singing, Matisyahu puts it all out there with a signature energy that is bound to translate at a maximum in a live setting.
In a recent Rolling Stone interview, he talked about the connection his songs have with his fans, and how it comes full circle back to him.
"The song resonates with you and it is your story that gives it depth and meaning," he said during the interview. "With new songs they are like babies with no history, just that of the writers/parents."
Which means that tonight's show at the Soul Kitchen could be more about creation than just celebrating the past effects of creativity. A journey, as it were, with a pulse offered for each step along the way.
Matisyahu performs with the Dirty Heads and Moon Taxi tonight, starting at 7:30. Tickets are $30, available at the door, by calling 866-468-7630 or visiting www.soulkitchenmobile.com.