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Built to Survive: On the Road with Matisyahu

Rebecca Forman | February 27, 2015

52 shows in 60 days. It’s fitting that the tour was titled “Built to Survive.” And not only did Matisyahu and his crew survive – they thrived. How do I know? I was there.

***

It was a warm and sunny afternoon in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, when I wandered through Downtown Disney to the House of Blues with an overnight bag slung over my shoulder. I must have stuck out like a sore thumb, but I knew I was in the right place when I spotted the top of the tour bus, which was visible through the wooden gate. What exactly was I about to get myself into? Here I was, a twenty-something aspiring journalist about to join a bunch of musicians for three days on the last leg of their nationwide tour. I had zero idea of what to expect, but I did know that it was a once-in-a-lifetime, Almost Famous-type opportunity, that would most likely never come again.

Before I joined the tour, I of course did my research on Matthew Miller, the 35-year- old singer, rapper and father who became known as the Chasidic Reggae Superstar when he first entered the music scene 10+ years ago with his hit “King Without a Crown.” However, I was already a fan and familiar with his background and had already enjoyed listening to his fifth studio album, Akeda. And any fan of his is familiar with the backlash he experienced when he shaved his beard back in 2011. But I decided from the get-go that 67,000 Google results dedicated to his facial hair, or lack thereof, was enough. So my focus was to dig past all of that and focus on the evolution that has, in my opinion, allowed Matisyahu to produce some of the best music of his career.

Feeling a little nervous, but very excited, I found myself sitting on the red velvet couches in the backstage area of the venue. I had already met with the tour manager, who I could already tell was a master at multitasking and controlling chaos. I received my All Access badge, which allowed me to feel more at ease knowing that I could at least look like I was part of the crew. It was already almost time for sound check and I had the chance to wander around and meet members of the band and crew. And then the star of the show walked into the room.

“Hi, I’m Matis. Are you the journalist coming on tour with us?” he asked.

He was dressed comfortably and was so laid-back that I immediately felt more at ease. After observing members of the band and crew hanging out, eating and getting ready for the show, I realized just how oddly normal everything felt. And although there is absolutely nothing normal about this way of life, I could tell that they all were accustomed to living the life that being on tour provided.

Soundcheck was a lot of fun because I got to witness everyone relaxed and goofing around. It was obvious right away that these people were a family. They were indeed a bunch of goofballs...just wickedly talented goofballs; each with their own distinct personalities and pre-show rituals.

Matisyahu’s band, The Dub Trio, are such an integral part of this show and the performance as a whole would be nowhere nearly as great without them. But aside from the band, there’s also an audio engineer, a stage and lighting guru, a stage tech magician who makes sure everything is always where it needs to be, a merch man, and a bus driver. Each person is either a lifelong friend of Matis’ or someone hand picked and carefully chosen, which is how this whole machine operates the way it does.

After the hour and a half set, which I got to witness from the side of the stage, I got to see the tour bus I’d be living out of – which has enough character to be considered another member of the band. Man, if wheels could talk, it would have some crazy stories to tell!

By the end of the night, I was exhausted and I hadn’t even been performing. I quickly got cozy in my bunk and let the motion of the bus lull me to sleep.

***
Suddenly it was morning and we were parked outside of the venue in Jacksonville. Again, everything was moving like clockwork and everything was already being loaded in and setup for that night’s show. It was in that afternoon that I contemplated what living that kind of lifestyle for years and years must be like. I sat there in the historic concert hall, the only audience member, and witnessed another sound check.

Later, I watched the show from backstage yet again and got to be a fly on the wall for the meet and greet that followed. It was during this time that I reflected on many of the lyrics from Akeda and witnessed the genuine smile on Matisyahu’s face when greeting his fans, who were often too nervous to ask what they had probably planned to ask him. The best part was when two girls who could not have been older than nine exclaimed that he was “so much better than Doodlebops.”

***
When I woke up on the bus on the third and final day of my journey, we were not where we were supposed to be. The tour bus had broken down en route and we were stranded at a rest stop. I was for sure going to miss my flight back home and it soon became apparent that we’d have to leave the bus and transfer nearly two months of belongings and pile them onto the supporting act’s tour bus.

But, to my surprise, everyone did what they had to do without much complaint and gathered together and quickly got settled. Shortly thereafter, we were all together watching the first Harry Potter movie and we were back on the road again to Pensacola. And it was on this part of the road trip that Matis and some of the band retreated to the back of the bus and recorded a new song about how sometimes you have to lose to win...it was all very surreal.