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Tag: roots reggae

Roots Reggae Survivors Third World: Revitalized in Downtown Brooklyn

What’s the likelihood that any band from the 70s would still be any good, especially with just a few of their original members left? In the case of roots reggae band Third World, they’ve survived not only forty years in business, but also the tragic death of well-liked frontman Bunny Rugs (who was witnessed just last year by this blog taking an animated turn on vocals out in front of Sly and Robbie). But the band has soldiered on with a new singer, AJ Brown, who might have given them a shot in the arm. Their outdoor show Thursday, staged by BAM in a scruffy downtown Brooklyn park, was surprisingly energetic, unexpectedly eclectic and a lot of fun.

What amazed the crowd the most was when guitarist and founding member Stephen Coore took a turn on cello, making his way methodically through parts of a Bach invention, a handful of classic reggae themes, a verse of the Marley classic Redemption Song and a little Beethoven to cap it off. By the time he and the band – who played along perfectly – reached that point, everybody’s phone was in the air. Otherwise, intentionally or not, the rest of the set was a sort of capsule history of roots reggae. The seven-piece group went down into a handful of brief dub interludes, did a bit of Nyabinghi drumming (kicked off by a blaring prerecorded sample of a women’s chorus), played an unlikely portion of vamping classic roots grooves as well as the jazz-inflected 70s reggae-pop they’re best remembered for. The bass and drum’s one-drop grooves were solid and uncluttered, the two keyboardists – one on synthesized brass and occasional electric piano, the other on organ and string synth – stayed away from cheesy voicings for the most part, and Coore stuck mostly to rhythm as well, adding a couple of gritty, blues-infused guitar solos.

It was good to hear the band’s most politically-charged hit, 96 Degrees in the Shade, a moody look back at simmering, late 70s Kingston violence. It was even better to hear it in the shade at about twenty degrees cooler than that, along with a handful of similar, straight-up, vamping rootsy numbers. But Third World’s signature sound was always more complex than your typical two-chord roots jam, from their early days as a cover band playing American urban top 40 songs in Jamaica in the early 70s. Drawing on the jazz harmonies and ornate vocals of American acts like the Stylistics, Third World’s 70s hits and albums had a glossy sheen that stood apart from their more rustic, African-inspired brethren (and some would say, made them a lot more lightweight). But Coore and bassist Richard Daley still have their voices, joining in the harmonies of reggae-pop hits like Committed and an extended, practically straight-up disco version of their closing hit, Now That We’ve Found Love, amusingly missing a couple of cues to jump back onto a long outro – but that’s one of the reasons why reggae shows are fun.

At this point in history,  roots reggae is a legacy genre, like bluegrass or Chicago blues. The people who play it either tend to be either hippies, who jam it out with mixed results, or purer-than-thou purists who play it like it’s something from a museum. It’s good to see some of the guys who were there in the beginning still playing it like their lives depended on it. Which in the case of this band is probably true. People who see them on their upcoming west coast tour might be in for a pleasant surprise.

Good Cop and Bad Cop Review the Hi Grade Ganja Anthems 4 Compilation

Good Cop: You’re on your own with this. I don’t like this album.

Bad Cop: Whoah, you’re the one always accusing me of breaking character and now you’re doing that right off the bat. That’s supposed to be my line.

Good Cop: I don’t care. I think this album is amateurish and panders to a certain demographic, know what I mean? Pot should be legal, sure, but do we have to sing about it?

Bad Cop: [in a fake Jamaican accent] Yeah mon! Greetings in the name of His Imperial Majesty, Haile I Selassie I, JAH!!!! Rastafari, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Igziabeher, Nagus a Nagas, the healing of the nation, the only cure for glaucoma, found on the grave of King Solomon…

Good Cop: You’re mixing your metaphors. And this isn’t a religious album. It’s about getting stoned. And it’s about as interesting as getting stoned.

Bad Cop: How do you know? You’ve never been high.

Good Cop: I don’t think I’m missing anything.

Bad Cop: Fine, more for me.

Good Cop: I’ll bet you’re high right now.

Bad Cop: Hahahahaha. Um, I lost my train of thought. Say, you don’t have any Ring Dings on you, do you?

Good Cop: Seriously, you look pretty stoned.

Bad Cop: I think that comes from listening to this album. I guess we should go through the tracks. Um, the first one is by Snoop Lion. The point of this one seems to be that we can fight global warming by planting more weed.

Good Cop: The vocals are autotuned. Yuck. You have to be stoned to like this.

Bad Cop: OK, the second track is about drinking ganja tea, and that’s the title of the song. It’s by Keida. I like this one. It’s oldschool, kinda oldschool at least. You know, a real band.

Good Cop: Too top 40 for me.

Bad Cop: Here’s another rootsy track, Cali Green by Mighty Mystic. This one’s a little more of a dub. Good song, huh?

Good Cop: More R&B masquerading as reggae. At least this isn’t autotuned.

Bad Cop: You’re in a bad mood. Here, have some of this [reaches into his pocket].

Good Cop [waves him away] No thanks, I don’t need your saliva.

Bad Cop: You’re no fun. But this album is. The next track is titled simply Marijuana. It’s by Linval Thompson – I think this is an old song, but I can’t remember if I’ve ever heard it before.

Good Cop: That figures. This is obviously an old song: you can tell that this is an overcompressed digital mix of an old analog recording. You know, this one actually isn’t bad.

Bad Cop: Glad you agree. Now where were we? Here’s track four, Marijuana, by Linval Thompson.

Good Cop: We just heard that.

Bad Cop: Oh yeah, duh. OK, here’s track six, another old roots number, I Man a Grasshopper by Pablo Moses.

Good Cop: You skipped a track.

Bad Cop: Huh?

Good Cop: We just heard track four. Now you’re saying we should listen to track six.

Bad Cop: No, this is track five.

Good Cop: No it’s not.

Bad Cop: Oh yeah, you’re right. But we might as well listen to I Man a Grasshopper. It’s got a clavinova and distorted guitar through a cheap amp. It sounds so Jamaica, 1980. I love it! Yeah mon!

Good Cop: You know, if we were around back then, we’d be listening to something more substantial.

Bad Cop: I was around back then

Gooc Cop: But you weren’t listening to this.

Bad Cop: I didn’t know this existed. Not many people outside Jamaica knew this existed and I wasn’t in Jamaica. [aside] I was deprived as a child.

Good Cop: Good thing you were deprived or you wouldn’t have any brain cells left.

Bad Cop: You’re just jealous. OK, we’re now going to hear track seven, Oh Mr. DC by Sugar Minott with Fantan Mojah and Military Man.

Good Cop: You forgot track five.

Bad Cop: Oh yeah, We’ll get back to that. This is more of a dancehall song. Very in the moment. Roots riddim, but it’s all hi-tech.

Good Cop: And those R&B vocals. Not my favorite.

Bad Cop: Me neither. Now here’s, um, what track were we just listening to?

Goood Cop: That was Oh Mr. DC. But you forgot track five.

Bad Cop: Aw, wow, ok, let’s hear that one, Weed Fields, by Desi Roots. Now this is a great song! I don’t know this one. Obviously from the golden age. Good band, good singer, a real crooner. Good lyrics too.

Good Cop: This sounds like a reggae remake of a Vegas pop song from the sixties. I don’t know which one. Any idea?

Bad Cop: You know what, you’re probably right. This is my favorite track so far.

Good Cop: Yeah, not bad. Now let’s hear track six, I Man a Grasshopper, by Pablo Moses.

Bad Cop: I think I’ve heard this before. An old roots tune.

Good Cop: You have heard it before. About ten minutes ago.

Bad Cop [sheepishly grinning]: OK, you got me. Got me good. Here’s track seven, Oh Mr. DC – wait, didn’t we hear this one?

Good Cop: Yes, if you weren’t so high you would realize that we’re on, um…where are we? What’s next?

Bad Cop [unwrapping a stick of Roll-O's]: Um, that’s why I brought you along. For the heavy lifting.

Good Cop: If this is heavy lifting then you’re a lightweight.

Bad Cop: Who’s calling who a lightweight? You didn’t even smoke.

Good Cop: Enough already. Um, the next song is track eight, One Draw, by Rita Marley. Speaking of lightweight, I never understood why this song was so popular.

Bad Cop: This isn’t Rita Marley. It’s some dancehall guy.

Good Cop: Oh yeah, you’re right. This is Alborosie featuring Camilla. I actually think this is better than the original. Which doesn’t mean that I liked the original.

Bad Cop: Don’t be such a sourpuss. Here, have a Roll-O.

Good Cop: OK, thanks. Now we’re on, what, track nine? This is Collie Herb Man. Do these songs really need titles? Aren’t they all pretty much the same anyway?

Bad Cop: I hate it when people say all reggae sounds the same. On this album so far we’ve heard some classic roots, some dancehall and some of whatever you call what they’re doing these days in Jamaica, it’s kind of hip-hop. And you remember that Jamaicans invented hip-hop.

Good Cop: Yeah, back in the 1950s. Anyway, this is Katchafire doing Collie Herb Man. This is bizarre. Is that a vibraphone or just a synthesizer?

Bad Cop: Whoah! This is a Steel Pulse cover. This is a fair approximation, but the original was better.

Good Cop: I learn something new every day. OK, next track. How many damn songs are on this album, anyway?

Bad Cop [grinning] Lots! This is High Grade by Jamelody featuring Natural Black. You know, the crooner-plus-toaster routine. Chaka Demus and Pliers, that sort of thing.

Good Cop: Wow, that’s a name I never thought I’d ever hear again.

Bad Cop: Who?

Good Cop: Chaka Demus. What was his big hit?

Bad Cop: Murder She Wrote [sings] “Murder she wrote, murder she wrote…”

Good Cop: OK, that’s enough, you’re no Chaka Demus. Pliers, maybe.

Bad Cop: That song didn’t set me on fire. Track eleven is Puff It, by I-Octane.

Good Cop: This is awful. Autotune, yuck. How long is this album? I don’t have all day to sit around and listen to Jamaicans rap about how much they like to smoke weed.

Bad Cop: It’s a long one! The next song is Hi Grade, by Busy Signal.

Good Cop: We already heard this.

Bad Cop: No we didn’t. It’s spelled differently. Now this one I like. Oldschool 80s style dancehall except that it’s new.

Good Cop: This is a ripoff of Murder She Wrote!

Bad Cop: Wow. If you hadn’t mentioned it, I never would have noticed.

Good Cop: Let’s make this a wrap. The next song is Collie Weed, by Shinehead.

Bad Cop: I LOVE this song! This is right from around the time the original came out. They took one of the worst songs ever written, Summer Breeze, by Seals & Crofts, and turned it into a ganja-smoking anthem. You know, I saw Shinehead do this live on Rockers TV with Earl Chin.

Good Cop: You know what, this is better than the original. Which isn’t saying much. How many more songs do we have to hear?

Bad Cop: Not done yet. Next one is Sensi Addict by Horace Ferguson. Wait, this sounds like a girl singing. Who is this?

Good Cop: Your guess as good as mine.

Bad Cop: This sounds like it was made with a Casio and a cheap mic, in 1985.

Good Cop: Probably was. That happens a lot in the third world.

Bad Cop: True. OK, next song. Strong Sensi, by Little John. Another really good one I never heard of. Obviously about thirty years old, maybe older. Out-of-tune piano, string synth, a real band.

Good Cop: Actually it’s not anywhere near that old. But it’s a clever imitation. Are we done yet?

Bad Cop: Nope. Next song is Better Collie, by Horace Andy.

Good Cop: If you just tuned in, we’re listening to, what is the name of this album?

Bad Cop: The Hi Grade Ganja Anthems 4 compilation. In honor of 4/20.

Good Cop: Horace Andy, now this guy I know. From my brother during his ska phase in high school. This is more of a reggae song.

Bad Cop: Guy from the golden age of ska, skanking about di herb! I love it!

Good Cop: Moving right along, the next song is, oh god, Sensimania, what a title. By Welton Irie. Never heard of the guy.

Bad Cop: Guessing it’s from the 80s. The last gasp of roots before dancehall took over. You know, the “murderah” chorus. Come to think of it, I know this song. I think I actually have it on a mixtape somewhere.

Good Cop: Wouldn’t surprise me. Is that it?

Bad Cop: Nope. Last song is Bring the Kouchie Come, by Mystic Eyes. Wow, I’m really impressed by this one. The production is really good and oldschool. And there’s a dub at the end, very cool.

Good Cop: Whew, I never though we’d ever get through this thing. To me this is just a random playlist. Is there such a thing as a reggae song that doesn’t mention getting stoned, anyway?

Bad Cop: I love this album. I know there are a few weak tracks but the good stuff is priceless.

Good Cop: So where can we stream this tedious thing online?

Bad Cop: Um, I forgot to plug in my phone and it’s dead. Can you google it? The album, I mean.

Good Cop [after half an hour of nonstop googling]: Answer is that you can’t. But you can hear everything here except for the Welton Irie song on youtube – you can use the links above in each of the song titles. The Welton Irie tune seems to be very obscure. You’re gonna have to digitize that track you have on that mixtape and upload it somewhere.

Bad Cop: Ha, if I can find it. Sure is fun being a grouch and ragging on random bands, isn’t it? You’ve been breaking character all day and I haven’t busted you once.

Good Cop: You’re right, I’m sick of the goody two-shoes routine. We should switch roles more often. Especially if blog boss gives us another one of these. I thought we were on a roll with this blog for awhile, but after this, you gotta wonder…

Bad Cop: Blog boss would never sink to the level of seriously reviewing an album of weedhead reggae songs. Strictly for the B team. That’s us.

Good Cop: You know what, blog boss doesn’t like grunt work like researching individual songs. How much you wanna bet we end up with the next compilation album this blog does?

Bad Cop: Bring it on. Hey, do you have my Roll-O’s?

Good Cop: Oh yeah, here, I was sitting on them. Hey, wait a minute, these smell like weed!

Bad Cop: Heh heh heh…

Sly and Robbie Bring It Down to the Roots

Sly and Robbie played a deep, purist set of roots reggae grooves at Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn yesterday, arguably the highlight of an otherwise lacklustre, ostensibly “R&B” themed weekly summer series booked by BAM. What kind of axe does legendary roots reggae bassist Robbie Shakespeare play? A standard issue Fender Jazz model. He stuck to the hooks he’s famous for, holding down the low end, a couple of times reaching down for boomy chords during one dub interlude. No slapping, no Jaco-style showboating, just soul. Behind his drum kit, Dunbar was much the same. He kept the one-drop going, having fun during the dub sections firing off hypnotic, steady volleys of eighth notes rather than any kind of gratuitous showmanship. No wonder these guys are considered one of the greatest rhythm sections ever.

They opened with a long series of instrumentals, backing a simple, direct, rock-solid trio of musicians: a trombonist who doubled on vocals and dancehall toasting, harmonizing with the keyboardist and edgy guitarist who contributed a single aching, searing, sustain-driven solo early in the set. They went down into dub a lot, oldschool style, dropping instruments out of the mix and back in again, pushing the echo fader up and down again, the keyboardist adding the occasionally blippy flourish. The band stuck mostly with minor keys, enhancing the dark, hypnotic ambience. The best of the early grooves first sounded like a dub of Burning Spear’s Old Marcus Garvey but then turned out to be On Broadway: it’s amazing how far you can get with just two chords. The biggest hit with the crowd was a long, murky jam on Dawn Penn’s reggae noir hit No, No, No. The high point of the show, with its gorgeous bassline, was a dub take on Freddie McGregor’s Revolution.

Third World’s 66-year-old frontman Bunny Rugs, who spent five years driving a cab in Brooklyn before joining that band, came up to sing for the remainder of the show. Third World were in the studio with Gregory Isaacs during his last session, so they played Night Nurse as a tribute to the late crooner. Rumors of War morphed into a scattering of bits and pieces from Third World hits like Reggae Ambassadors, Now That We’ve Found Love and Committed. Surreal moments abounded.

Bunny Rugs told the crowd that since he’d forgotten the lyrics to a number from his solo album, he was going to make some up on the spot, but that didn’t matter, he explained, since “Di riddim wicked!” The second he sang the line “this chair is empty now,” a concertgoer abruptly stood up from his and left it for someone else – thanks, guy! In the middle of a long, dissociative cover of Randy Newman’s Baltimore, Bunny Rugs turned “hooker on the corner” into “cop around the corner” and then went off on a long, rambling shout-out to Jamaica, where he, Sly and Robbie were when all this stuff gained critical mass. His comment about the music reaching a global audience without any help from big corporations was wrong. Columbia Records spent a fortune promoting Bob Marley, just not when he was alive. The crowd reflected how far reggae has come since it was the first world’s favorite esoterica: daycamp kids and their caretakers in the back, a sleepy lunchtime office crowd nodding their heads and swaying in unison, with the hippies and a small but vocal Jamdown posse up front. For a country of 144 square miles, at least for a couple of decades, they turned out more great musicians per capita than anywhere else in the world.

Alpha Blondy Brings His Revolutionary African Reggae to B.B. King’s

Ivory Coast bandleader and songwriter Alpha Blondy has built career that ranks with the work of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Through decades of censorship and repression, he toiled on, a crusader for peace whose rage began to boil over even before the Jasmine Revolution began in Tunisia and then started its inevitable spread around the world. Like Tosh, especially, Blondy is a big-picture guy with a gift for metaphor that cuts to the root of whatever he’s going up against. Many of his albums are roots reggae classics, beginning with his early 80s collaborations with the Wailers. NY Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture ranked his massive 2007 double album Jah Victory as one of the thousand best albums of all time, a spot-on state-of-the-world account that skewers dictators, genocidal regimes and hypocrites of all kinds. Now, in what has been a considerable coup in the reggae business, VP Records has released Blondy’s new album Mystic Power, an often caustic, sometimes epically powerful album that’s as valuable a historical document as it is for its infectious grooves. He’s playing B.B. King’s at 8 PM on July 2; advance tickets are $30 and still available as of today.

Blondy sings in French, English, Arabic and his native vernacular. The albums opens uncharacteristically with a nod to current African autotune pop, a weirdly worrisome tune featuring a Beenie Man cameo, then closes with a brief coda from a gospel choir. In between, the riddims are an eclectic mix, from seriously oldschool roots reggae with rippling organ, layers of guitar, real bass and drums, to high-tech, artsy anthems with all kinds of synthesized orchestration.

With its fuzzy P-Funk synth riffage, My American Dream takes the ominous and tragic point of view of an African immigrant whose experiences here were anything but dreamy. If you’ve ever wondered what I Shot the Sherriff would sound like in French, you need to hear J’ai Tue le Commissaire – and the music is remarkably close to the original Marley classic, something Blondy no doubt learned from working with Marley’s band.

With its gospel gandeur, Crime Spirituel is sort of Blondy’s Masters of War: “Mohammed isn’t a terrorist prophet, don’t connect him with your wars,” Blondy intones in French. La Bataille d’Abidjan begins with a viciously sarcastic surf rock quote but then offers hope for a post-revolutionary future, as does the Middle Easterm-flavored Ouarzazate, and also Reconciliation (a collaboration with fellow African roots reggae revolutionary Tiken Jah Fakoly).

The snidely catchy France A Fric (one of Blondy’s signature Peter Tosh-style jokes, a pun on “French Africa” and “France Has Big Bucks”) – is a warning to any wannabe imperialists. Woman, sung in English, is a Burning Spear-style shout-out to the strength of women around the world – much as you might not expect a feminist anthem from a guy from the Ivory Coast, that’s what this is. Danger Ivoirite looks at the terror Blondy’s fellow citizens have had to deal with in the last few years, even if they have to go online to get the real story about war atrocities. There’s also a French Mediterranean ballad done as roots reggae, and a gospel anthem, as well as a couple of bouncy tracks in Blondy’s own dialect. Like so many Africans, Blondy shifts easily between languges: in concert here in the US, he adjusts the set list to include a lot of stuff in English, including his haunting, plaintive cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here.

How Many Times Can You Hear the Same Reggae Song Before You Go Insane?

When Romanian gypsy band Mahala Rai Banda recorded their hit Balkan Reggae a few years back, it was an appreciative shout-out from one hot ghetto band to the thousands of others in another time zone who may have inspired it. Now the song’s come full circle with the Balkan Reggae Remixed compilation, a bunch of Jamaicans (and Jamaican soundalikes) doing their own  thing with the song. From a 2013 perspective, the original seems a lot less surreal: a brooding roots reggae groove with a cimbalom? Why the hell not?

By that standard, the new mixes are even trippier – a New Yorker would call this “Mehanata music.” What’s coolest is that most of them are so different that you forget that underneath, they’re all the same song. La Cherga’s version has a vocal cameo from Adisa Zvekic that starts out pretty cliched but then gets reprocessed with a weird, ghostly tone-bending effect. Nick Manasseh’s version has Gregory Fabulous’ skibbitty-doo skanking and constant call to “soundboy” for no real reason at all. Jstar does a fabulously trippy job of stripping the song to its accordion roots and then back, adding silly stoner synth bass and video game-style EFX along the way. Mad Professor starts very subtly and then gets very unsubtle with the echo and the sequencer. G-Vibes gives newschool crooner Errol Linton a bit of funky wah guitar but otherwise pretty much leaves the song alone.

The Vibronics pretty much phone in their take; Koby Israelite add singer Annique’s jaunty, jazz-tinged vocal track. Kanka go for a wickedly echoey oldschool Scratch Perry vibe. By the time the last track, which doesn’t add anything, comes around, it’s time for the original, which ironically isn’t on this mix. Who is the audience for this, other than the limited number of people who plug their phones into a sound system and call themselves DJ’s? Probably anyone who’s in the house listening to those playlists.

John Brown’s Body Puts Out Their Best Studio Album in Ages

Imagine your band’s been on the road for the better part of twenty years. You can sell out pretty much any midsize venue you feel like playing. Recordings of your concerts – both the ones made by fans, and your own, which you give away for free – are shared and prized by collectors around the world. Why on earth would you make a studio album – let alone one that sounds ok on phone earbuds, but which sounds AMAZING on a good stereo system?

Because you play so many shows that you’re bound to sell out whatever you manufacture? Because people who are stoned enough will buy pretty much anything? Or maybe just because the band is in a good place right now and you want to document this particular period in its history? Maybe all of the above. Veteram roots reggae band John Brown’s Body are playing Brooklyn Bowl tonight around 9 and as of this afternoon, it isn’t sold out yet – get to the venue by 8 and you should be fine. And you can pick up their new album Kings & Queens, just out from the folks at Easy Star Records, if you want a souvenir that sounds as good as the concert.

John Brown’s Body has been making solidly decent album since the early 90s. They used to have more of a dub vibe, with wah-wah on the keys of all things, and more orthodox, “praise Jah” type lyrics. These days, they’re louder and more driving, Mike Keenan’s guitar pushing the music with Nate Edgar’s bass and Tommy Benedettt’s drums, Jon Petronzio’s keys adding a dubwise edge, their killer horn section usually lighting the way melodywise.

The opening track on the new album has the hook in the bass – it’s irresistible, just like the horn charts. Although trumpeter Sam Dechenne, saxophonist Drew Sayers and trombonist Scott Flynn – who write all their own arrangements – look back to vintage 1960s Motown and soul, the brass on John Brown’s Body albums and this one especially is good enough to recommend to gypsy music fans. They follow with a big anthemic sway on the second track, Invitation (which sounds like “invocation” – it’s that kind of thing).

The Burning Spear influence is all over this record. Track three, Plantation, reminds of Man in the Hills, a snowstorm of keyboard EFX kicking off a brief bass-and-drum interlude before the song picks up again.Shine Bright has the gleaming horns and stutter pulse of late 80s Spear mixed with jazzy 70s Stylistics-style ballad chords. And just as Jah Spear did for one of his heros, Marcus Garvey, JBB finally send a shout out to the guy whose name they took – and reference Old Marcus Garvey along the way.

Empty Hands has a noir Ghost Town/Satta Massaganna arrangement to match its  “Mr. Officer leave me alone” lyric with a little hip-hop vibe as it winds out. Fall on Deep sounds like a Marley love ballad from the Kaya days. Dust Bowl might be the best track here, with its big, intense, swirly minor-key ambience and ominous global warming-era lyrics. By contrast, The Battle reverts to the band’s more anxious, stripped-down spiritually-minded sound from the Kevin Kinsella days back in the 90s, frontman Elliot Martin letting his vocals linger (and is that autotune or just some weird flange effect on the harmonies?!?).

As far as horns go, the arrangements on the dub-influenced Starver are gorgeously dark and bluesy; on Deep Summer, arguably the album’s best track, they’re warm, enveloping and absolutely beautiful. The album closes with Searchlight, which is not a reggae song – it’s a big mid 80s style new wave pop anthem with a sequencer, like ZZ Top used to use. It also offers a nod to P-Funk, sonically if not rhythmically. It sounds suspiciously like it was written to close a show on a, um, high note, a big singalong where everybody in the choom gang who hasn’t reached total absorption yet gets an excuse to raise their lighter to their lips one final time.

Kiwi’s On the Move with Good Original Reggae

Jersey City reggae band Kiwi’s new album On the Move manages to be purist without being a ripoff. Frontman/guitarist Alex Tea’s songs draw a straight line back to Bob Marley and Burning Spear at their late 70s peak, while adding original touches including elements of jazz and Brazilian music. The arrangements are everything that’s good about roots reggae: they’re slinky and hypnotic yet constantly change shape, with light dub tinges that enhance the psychedelic factor. Much as the album’s sonics are crisply digital, the production values are strictly oldschool. What’s interesting about this band is that everybody seems to come from either a rock or jazz background, yet they get what reggae is all about better than some of the Jamaican posse does these days. Drummer Ramsey Norman is a harder hitter than most of his reggae counterparts, and like the great Sly Dynbar he does a lot more than just the one-drop beat, teaming up with percussionist Ben Guadalupe. Likewise, bassist Matt Quinones basically functions as a second lead guitarist, a couple of octaves lower. Keyboardist Dave Stolarz varies his textures from swoopy Wailers-style organ to various piano and synth voicings: he’s their secret dubwise edge.  The horn section of tenor saxophonist Barami Waspe, trumpeter Curtis Taylor and trombonist Rob Edwards make the most of a bunch of juicy charts, adding to the richly tuneful, retro 70s vibe.

The opening track, Aprendiz, blends tropicalia and anthemic rock over a rootsy groove, like a Brazilian John Brown’s Body. The second track, Burden, is a killer singalong, the first of several rocksteady-style numbers that remind of vintage early 70s Toots & the Maytals. They go for a pensive Marley feel with Change and then add spaghetti western touches and Augustus Pablo-ish melodica on the apprehensively jungly Dead Man, which segues into an unexpectedly weird, trippy atmospheric interlude.

Edwards’ balmy trombone lines pair off with the jaunty bounce of Fine and Mellow, while Give a Little goes back to the rocksteady before raising to a gorgeously soaring chorus. I Can Fall nicks the riff from the Burning Spear classic Man in the Hills and takes it more upbeat on the wings of the horns; the band hits a dub passage and segues from there into Lady Lady, the poppiest thing here, which has the feel of a carefree early 70s Johnny Clarke hit.

The most intense and original track here is Pirambu, an unexpectedly ominous, lushly anthemic tune with intricate jazz-tinged guitar, ethereal horns and another hypnotic dub interlude. Pema mixes up samba and reggae, while Sun Never Set is sort of Marley’s Dem Belly Full crossed with Henry Mancini. The album winds up with the easygoing Tell You Once, spiced with a sweet trombone solo and the best outro of any of the songs here. Kiwi play the album release show tonight, Feb 21 at Joe’s Pub at 11 PM.

A New Album from Ageless Freddie McGregor

Freddie McGregor’s new album Di Captain is just out, and the whole thing is streaming at Large Up. The veteran reggae rootsman has something for everybody here. Several tracks look back to the early 80s when dancehall was starting to gather steam and push the rootsier stuff off the charts. Other tracks set up shop at the crossroads where glossy 70s soul-pop and reggae meet. Productionwise, the album is a capsule history of recent roots reggae: considering how much the production varies from track to track, it’s possible that these may have been recorded across the years.

The first number, Move Up Jamaica has real organic riddims – organ, tasteful guitar, bass and drums. A feel-good shout-out to fifty years of Jamaican independence, it’s sort of McGregor’s Smile Jamaica  – and sadly one of the few here that has the oldschool sound that McGregor has held onto for so long while his compatriots were dying off, literally or figuratively. Many of the other songs have a familiar, techy teens vibe: synth bass, drum machine and lots of keybs, everything anchored by McGregor’s imperturbible vocals. There are also a handful that mix slickness and rootsiness in the same vein as all those Dr. Dread productions from the 90s: real bass and drums, but with perfect digital separation.

McGregor’s voice has taken on more grit as the years have passed, but otherwise he’s none the worse for the wear and tear of a career that spans fifty years (as the opening intro proudly announces, he was seven when he first lent his voice to the Clarendonians in the early 60s). He covers the Beatles’ You Won’t See Me and doesn’t embarrass himself, evokes American soul acts from the 70s like the Stylistics with the distantly jazz-tinged Love I Believe In and There You Go, and adds soca touches on Jah Love Di Whole A Wi and Equal Rights (an easygoing original, not the Peter Tosh classic).

The only track with the kind of edge that McGregor had at the peak of his late 70s Rasta phase is Bag A Hype, an early 80s dancehall-flavored number where he admits to missing the old days, lamenting that “Di youths have gone astray, talking about dem against us” as it fades out. The rootsier Africa, by contrast, is a lot more optimistic. McGregor follows that with the strangely ominous More Love in the Ghetto, driven by an unexpectedly creepy faux organ patch from the synth. A cover of Marley’s Rainbow Country misses the warmth of the original; likewise, a sufferah’s anthem, a cheesy love ballad and cover of the Everly Bros.’ Let It Be Me are less than convincing. Still, you have to hand it to McGregor for toiling on even as he watched his audience turn over and be replaced by a younger generation who weren’t around when Jamaican music was at its late-70s peak.

Some Memorable, Surreal Barrington Levy Tracks from the Archives

Barringon Levy is one of the hardest working men in the reggae business, a familiar face on tour year in, year out. For those who know him as a teddybear crooner, that persona is some distance from Levy’s much more eclectic early years in Jamaica, right at the point where dancehall started to break away from roots and become its own style. The folks over at VP Records - who’ve been putting out Strictly the Best compilations since the 80s – have just released the mammoth 40-track compilation Barrington Levy: Sweet Reggae Music 1979-84. It’s good inspiration for anybody putting together a playlist, not to mention a fond look back at a time and place gone forever.

Ironic that the Roots Radics, who back Levy on most of these tracks, would be instrumemtal in the development of early dancehall to the point where they inadvertently put themselves and other bands like them out of business, more or less! A cynic might say that these tracks sound like they were thrown together on the fly, which they undoubtedly were. By the same token, it’s amazing how much imagination went into making them interesting, and giving them an individual flavor, especially considering how slapdash these singles were assembled.  If you want to hear a fifteen-year-old youthman from Kingston who sounds stoned out of his mind, crank up the opening track, Collie Weed: if the lyric is to be trusted, his mom sent him out to buy some. He’s a little older on the album’s last track, the early dancehall classic Under Mi Sensi: “Babylon yuh na like ganja much, but it bring foreign currency pon de island..”.

On the 38 tracks in between, the production and riddims are refreshingly organic: fat bass, echoey acoustic piano, biting skanky guitar, real drums and percussion. And it’s interesting to hear Levy’s singing style developing – as fine a crooner as he became, there’s a raw, hungry quality to many of the vocals here that’s absent in his more polished, mature material. And the songs are a microcosm of late 70s/early 80s Jamaican reggae history. Levy’s Bounty Hunter sounds like a prototype for Israel Vibration’s Mr. Consular Man, and is his song Sister Carol a shout-out to the Brooklyn dancehall sister…or did she take her name from it? On one of the relatively rare tracks, Soldier, did Bingy Bunny or whoever’s playing the guitar nick the exaggerated echo effect from the Clash,. or did Mick Jones steal it from him?

Levy and band take Black Uhuru’s brooding, bitter Shine Eyed Gal and transform it into a surrealistically sunny anthem. The rest of the collection alternates between gnomic Rasta rambles like Trod with Jah Jah and somewhat less mystical numbers like Mary Long Tongue, whose subtext remains amusing after all these years. The first of the two discs focuses more on songs, the second more on dub, although there aren’t any versions, per se, of any of the hits. Many of these songs are funny, many are pretty weird, and they show how many diverse directions Levy was willing to go in just to put himself on the reggae map. Thirty years later, he’s still here, testament to a rare brand of persistence.

Groundation Builds a Mighty Ark

Among current-day roots reggae bands, Groundation are the template for how to do it right. A look at their tour schedule confirms their popularity; a listen to their discography confirms the intelligence and unpredictability of their music. These guys do just about everything psychedelic that you can do with reggae: long anthemic songs designed to be jammed out live, slowly and methodically moving from section to section, transcending any predictable verse/chorus structure. If that last sentence seemed to go on forever, the same is true of this band’s songs. And yet, they’re not boring. It wouldn’t be right to let the year go by without giving a mention to this tremendous group’s latest album, Building an Ark.

The little touches mean a lot here: the stark, gospel flavored intro, acoustic guitar paired off against churchy blues piano on the title track; the way keyboardist Marcus Urani switches from eerie, echoey Rhodes to a surreal, 80s-flavored DX7 synthesizer patch on the second track; or Jason Robinson’s tropical, balmy tenor sax solo on the fourth one. Light dub oscillations percolate through the first few songs and then subside, as if to say, it’s time to get serious: in stark contrast to most jam bands, a lot of thought went into this album.

The opening cut sets the stage, section by section, lit up by a long, soulful David Chachere trumpet solo on the way out. The second number, Humility, sounds like the Wailers but more digitally produced. Be That Way launches off a shuffling vamp that blends Bob Marley’s Exodus with Isaac Hayes psychedelic soul, a vibe they bring back later on with Keep It Up and then the album’s steady, slow closing track, The Dreamer.

They hit a nice, edgy, bouncy groove on Merry-Go-Round, contemplating such things as “What did our old friend Columbus do for you?” and “Would you be a friend or enemy as we go walking through the night?” Lyrically, they may not be breaking any new ground, but at least they have a worldview beyond Bushwick or Laurel Canyon. Pakaya Way takes a richly eerie, noir-tinged, minor-key detour that slowly grows less menacing as it moves toward a vintage 70s soul vibe. They keep the dark/light juxtaposition going with Who Is Gonna, with layers of overlapping vocals and a counterintuitive series of changes culminating in a laid-back but incisive Ryan Newman bass solo – and it all works.

After a brief acoustic interlude, they launch into Daniel, an elegy for someone who “Never would talk, so they call him a coward, but he would speak in the final hour,” peaking with a long, winding, understatedly intense Harrison Stafford guitar solo. It’s everything you could possibly want from a reggae band at this point in history. Groundation just played Highline Ballroom a couple of weeks ago; you can count on a return trip, or maybe two if we’re lucky, sometimes in 2013.

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