Roots Reggae At Its Deep, Psychedelic Best at Maxwell’s Thursday Night

by delarue

Thursday night at Maxwell’s, the buzz was that Kiwi – the tri-state area’s most consistently entertaining and original roots reggae band – was going to school the two out-of-town acts on the bill. To their immense credit, both Myrtle Beach’s Treehouse and Boston’s High Hopes Band rose to the occasion, resulting in a wickedly good late-summer festival of deep psychedelic grooves.

One of the measures of a band is how well they play to an empty room. Seriously – any band can feed off the energy of a good audience, and the crowd was slow to arrive when Treehouse hit the stage at nine sharp. But they played as if they were headlining Coachella. They were by far the loudest and hardest-rocking of the three groups. Guitarist Jeremy Anderson had a blast with the dozens of settings on his huge pedalboard: he likes an icy tone and plays leads with furious flurries of tremolo-picking, building to several unexpected cumulo-nimbus peaks. Bassist Matt Link plays his five-string with a pick, but he doesn’t let it slow him down, with a serpentine, melodic attack that featured several slinky solos this time out. Drummer Trey Moody has an individualistic style, building a deep pocket with his classic roots beats but then picking up to a steady four-on-the-floor rock drive on the band’s louder material. Anderson doubled (tripled?) on melodica and trumpet, used his loop pedal to lay down a couple of psychedelic, cumbia-influenced riffs to underpin a couple of songs, and finally ended the band’s set on a blistering, explosive note with a dynamically shapeshifting number that veered back and forth between dancehall, ska and edgy rock.

Kiwi were their usual slinky selves, and High Hopes followed a similar deep-roots groove afterward. Kiwi has six members, High Hopes seven, so the music wasn’t as focused on guitar as Treehouse’s was. Both bands have sensationally good, trippy keyboardists. Kiwi’s Dave Stolarz brought a dramatic, cinematic edge with his synth work, when he wasn’t playing swirly organ or tersely bluesy piano. High Hopes’ Paddy McDonnell went further into artsy Pink Floyd territory, with just as atmospheric a dub style as Stolarz. Likewise, both bands have deep rhythm sections grounded in a classic late 70s Jamaican sound. Both bassists, Kiwi’s Steve Capecci and High Hopes’ Julie Feola, anchored the music with their purist, effortlessly boomy lines. Kiwi’s drummer, Ramsey Norman, was both the night’s hardest hitter and also its most oldschool one-drop expert; behind the kit for High Hopes, AJ Maynard worked a nimble, acrobatic approach.

The crowd had come to party, and they got louder as the show went on. So Kiwi frontman Alex Tea brought the music down to just Norman’s woodblock and percussionist Mike Torres’ scraper – and in a second the room was silent. Using a wide palette of sounds that brought to mind peak-era Steel Pulse as well as late 60s rocksteady, Tea led the group through an eclectic mix of songs that shifted from deep dub, to Beatlesque jangle and echoes of late 70s Burning Spear. Jazz chords, unexpected major/minor and loud/soft shifts kept things interesting, everybody in the band contributing something into the mix.

High Hopes have two distinctive guitarists: Jason Dick likes surrealistically atmospheric wah-wah lines; Sebastian Franks plays precise, catchy, soaring single-note leads. Like Kiwi, they varied their tempos and energy levels, opening with an instrumental medley, shifting on a dime between one mini-segment to another: an old Jamaican custom. Also like Kiwi, they had an awful lot going on, lots of it unexpected, shifting from dub to doublespeed to a goodnatured bounce, then bringing things down to a simmering ballad or two. The funniest moment of the night was when McDonnell hit a rapidfire echo riff during one of their deepest dub segments and then slowly, slowly turned his reverb knob, putting the brakes on the echo until it was finally in sync with the rest of the band.

At this point in history, roots reggae is a legacy style like swing jazz and bluegrass: beyond the festival circuit, it’s next to impossible to find three reggae acts on a single bill, let alone three this good and this original. Treeehouse and High Hopes are on tour; their next show is Sept 24 at 8 PM at one of Atlanta’s funnest venues, Smith’s Olde Bar.