Signal Fire opened a roots reggae twinbill at SOB’s last night that was as much a delicious throwback to the golden age of roots reggae as it was a look at where slinky one-drop sounds might go in the future. You might assume that Wilmington, North Carolina would be a hotspot for Americana sounds – Mark Sinnis calls the place home now – but it’s actually a college town with a surprisingly eclectic music scene. Signal Fire fit the mold of current-day American roots reggae bands, but they keep the sound closer to the ground, rooted in the earth. Guitarist/singer Sean Gregory would hit his distortion pedal for a blast of fire when the smoke threatened to go out, but otherwise he and the rest of the band – bassist Cullen Seward, drummer Ken Forrest and keyboardist Carl Blackmon – kept the low-key, blue-flame vamps going, closer to the Roots Radics in the late 70s at their most purposeful. In an age when so many so-called reggae bands are really just upper-middle-class white stoners taking a stab at funky rock through a ganja haze, what Signal Fire are doing is awfully refreshing.
As is Jesse Royal. What a diversely talented band this guy has. The drummer spiced the music with unexpected rolls and tumbles, the bassist anchoring it with murderous downtuned chords and deep-channel swoops up to the top of the fretboard. The lead guitarist’s elegant, shapeshifting textures occasionally gave way to Hendrix-inspired flashes and flickers, enveloped in bubbly organ, raspy synth brass or woozily tinkling electric piano from the keyboardist.
In his resonant, melismatic baritone, Royal didn’t go straight for the romantic stuff either. He railed against 700 years of injustice and then celebrated finally being able to smoke up in peace in the night’s most wildly applauded number, Finally. Several numbers later, after he finally asked if he could play one for the ladies, he led the band through the ornate vintage 60s style soul ballad Next to You, which without the toasting could have been a Smokey Robinson hit.
Speaking of which, there’s a lot more toasting in roots reggae lyrics than there used to beL dancehall has left a lasting mark. But Royal’s is a lot closer to Eek-a-Mouse, or Yellowman without the smut, or vintage U-Roy than, say, Elephant Man. Likewise, the band’s steady, undulating skank would have worked perfectly behind, say, Freddie McGregor forty years ago. And for all his conscious lyrics and seriousness, Royal has a sense of humor. “I feel very close to this song,” he confided midway through the set. He paused: “it’s the first single off the new album.” For people who might have left reggae behind when the first wave of classic acts from the 70s began falling off the nostalgia circuit, Royal represents Jamaica in a way that an awful lot of golden-age artists used to. Let’s hope this is a trend.