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A Deep Roots Reggae Hanukkah Record From the Temple Rockers

Tommy Benedetti’s simple one-two nyabinghi drumbeat echoes over sparse jungle bird noise as the new Temple Rockers album Festival of Lights – streaming at Bandcamp – gets underway. Is this a throwback to the golden age of roots reggae and dub, in the spirit of Ras Michael and Lee Scratch Perry?

Kind of. If you’ve ever lit your spliff from the menorah, this is your jam. While the festival of lights and gambling has officially passed, this album of Hanukkah-themed reggae songs, many of them familiar themes reinvented with a one-drop beat, will keep the spirit alive if you’re in the mood.

The production values are spot-on: a wah effect on the organ, chicken-scratch guitar, clouds of grey noise wafting in the distance, ample reverb on pretty much everything except bandleader David Gould’s bass and the spicy brass flourishes that punctuate the high points. All this makes even more sense considering that Gould’s main gig is with perennial tour favorites John Brown’s Body.

While there have been Hanukkah reggae songs over the years, this one of a very small handful of albums celebrating the holiday Which is surprising, considering how well the Jewish diaspora has been represented on the jamband circuit over the years, and that a disproportionate number of white dreads are Jews.

Roots reggae vets Linval Thompson, Wayne Jarrett and Ansel Meditations share vocals with the group’s regular frontman, Craig Akira Fujita, giving the music immense Jamdown cred. The first track is the brisk, bouncy Days Long Ago, with its tasty organ and tradeoffs between trumpet and trombone. Not to rain on your parade, dudes…but the hora is a wedding dance, not something people typically do after lighting the menorah. But maybe it’s time to revisit that tradition.

The rest of the album touches on the Hanukkah story without belaboring it. Rock of Ages is more rocksteady-tinged, like something the Melodians might have done in the 70s. Do You Know Why, a famous holiday theme, has deliciously bluesy lead guitar and smoky baritone sax. The klezmer reggae fire keeps burning with the instrumental Pour Some Oil, Gould’s bass carrying the tune as the horns get a little crazy

Spin Dem is a slinky reminder of how Rasta and Jewish iconography are so often interchangeable. Festival Song is an irresistibly coy, punchy rocksteady remake of Dreydl, Dreydl, Dreydl. Who Can Retell, with its wobbly vocals, celebrates a global unity theme: it’s practically a dead ringer for a Congos classic. Much the same could be said for Almighty Light, with its brooding horns

About the Miracles, a return to Hebrew reggae, is the album’s catchiest number. The album winds up with its dubbiest track, Lickle Jug and then the glistening rocksteady vamp I Have a Candle, with bracing mutitracked vocals by Gould’s sister Lisa. Not only is this destined to become a classic of Jewish holiday music: there’s also a dub version available.

Purist Roots Reggae Band John Brown’s Body Make a Long-Awaited Manhattan Return

John Brown’s Body have been touring for longer than Bob Marley & the Wailers were together.

Think about that for a second.

If you count the point in the mid-60s where ska slowed down to rocksteady, and Toots & the Maytals had a hit with Do the Reggay, roots reggae has been around for half a century. And it’s been a long time since reggae was CNN for Rastafarians and the Jamaican pro-democracy underground.

And it seems like almost as long since John Brown’s Body played a good New York venue. These road warriors’ most recent album, Fireflies – streaming at Soundcloud – has been sitting on the hard drive here waiting for the moment that they’d say boom bye bye to Williamsburg bowling alley Babylon. Good news: they’re playing Bowery Ballroom on Dec 1 at 10ish; cover is $20.

The album’s brassy, minor-key first track is Badman. The song was recorded before the 2016 Presidential election, and it alludes to exploitation of immigrants and working people rather than the tweeting twit in the Oval Office. Still:

Created a master fool
Pay what is natural
Won’t be your slave
Don’t want to obey

Reggae wasn’t always just about getting stoned and chilling.

Realistically, not many people other than musicians are going to listen to this album for every single lyric or nuance. But you have to hand it to this band for nailing every oldschool trope from the rocksteady era to the early 80s, right before the Sleng Teng riddim changed the game.

Tour enough and you can afford the equipment and the studio time to do this like legends. Some highlights: keyboardist JP Petronzio’s subtle organ flickers on the album’s title track, and his growly sub-bass clavinova on the aptly titled Mystery; drummer Tommy Benedetti’s straight-to-dub snare hits; the spot-on evocation of early Maytals rocksteady in Hard Man Fe Dead; trumpeter Sam Dechenne’s horn chart from High Grade, straight out of a blazing Burning Spear anthem circa 1975.

The three-part harmonies on Mash Them Down, another pro-immigrant anthem that would make the Mighty Diamonds proud. That sneaky Aswad reference in the Steel Pulse soundalike New Fashion. The dubwise production, especially with the layers of echo effects in Pure Fire. Singer Elliot Martin’s vengeful “You never look me in the eye” on the closing cut, Who Paid Them Off. Amazing how much you can do with two chords if you have the imagination, isn’t it? Is it time for all the new jacks to do a John Brown’s Body tribute album?

Wickedly Catchy, Edgy Balkan Tunes and an East Village Album Release Show by Cocek! Brass Band

Boston’s Cocek! Brass Band play original Balkan music with fresh, imaginative horn charts and tinges of reggae, rocksteady and dixieland. If New York’s Raya Brass Band are the Evil Empire, the class of the American league of Balkan bands, Cocek! Brass Band are the perennially dangerous Red Sox. Much as it’s a ballsy move for trumpeter/composer Sam Dechenne’s group to put that exclamation point in their name, they live up to it. They’ve got an intense, richly tuneful, intricately arranged new album, simply titled Round Two – streaming at Bandcamp – and a release show on April 14 at 11 PM at Drom. The lineup is one of the year’s best triplebills so far, starting at 10 with slinky, torchy, creepy female-fronted circus rock/noir cabaret band Egress with blazing No Small Money Brass Band sometime around midnight. Advance tix are $10.

Flutter, the opening track on the new Cocek album, also lives up to its name. It’s a funhouse mirror of brass, Dechenne echoed by flugelhornist Ezra Weller and trombonist Clayton DeWalt, tuba player Jim Gray anchoring the brightly biting harmonies over Grant Smith’s rat-a-tat tapan drum. The second cut, Found Water is a slowly swaying, darkly rustic number, sort of a mashup of bluesy oldtime gospel and Balkan funeral music – and then they hit a chorus with a chart straight out of vintage Jamaican rocksteady. No surprise, since Dechenne is also a member of long-running roots reggae band John Brown’s Body.

Speaking of which, the next track is Heads in the Cloud, a tasty, catchy Balkan reggae tune, right down to Gray’s catchy, purposeful bassline, the horns branching out and then reconfiguring on the chorus. Macedonian Wedding has tricky syncopation and an easygoing, upbeat vibe that darkens on the wings of an ominously chromatic DeWalt solo. Mr. Kapitan Tappan is a catchy shout-out to Smith’s prowess on the big standup drum, but it’s got bite, and it’s hardly a throwaway.

Rock Jumper is a showcase for the brass section’s subtlety and resonance as well as their pinpoint staccato attack. Springtime in Allston is state-of-the-art, a sizzling, rapidfire blaze of wickedly pulsing riffage. The Snake brings back a wry Balkan reggae feel tinged with hi-de-ho swing. Town Tax Man builds off a noir chromatic riff to an agitated three-horn round-robin, then back. Trek Through Town sounds like Dejan Petrovic‘s group covering the Skatalites, right up to a big, percussion-driven peak midway through. The album winds up with Up in Smoke, another showcase in edgy/resonant contrast, with a wry shout-out to a famous tv theme, The coolest thing about this album is that it doesn’t sound like a bunch of Americans taking a stab at Balkan music. They really have the fluttery doublestops, the odd (to us, anyway) meters and the edgy harmonies down cold. Count this as one of 2016’s best.

You might wonder why Cocek! Brass Band punctuate their name the way they do. Likely answer: a cocek is a popular Serbian dance. Try googling “cocek brass band.” You’ll probably get a bunch of links to sketchy Russian download sites.

Cocek! Brass Band Put the Exclamation Point in Original Balkan Dance Music

The last time Cocek! Brass Band played New York, their set uptown at Shrine had barely gotten underway before a pretty girl in the crowd went to the bar and bought them a couple of rounds of shots. Which were gone by the next song. And the five-piece Boston Balkan group played like they’re used to that kind of stuff. Especially frontman/trumpeter Sam Dechenne, who’s also a member of innovative klezmer dance unit Klezwoods…and is best known as a regular member of long-running second-wave roots reggae band John Brown’s Body. Although JBB probably get offered stuff that’s smokier than what these guys were downing in between songs.

What sets Cocek! Brass Band apart from so many of their colleagues in the thriving American Balkan demimonde, other than that exclamation point, is that Dechenne writes the songs. Beyond the bristling chromatics, tricky rat-a-tat rhythms and rapidfire, redline solos is a cheery but dynamically shapeshifting sensibility and a surprisingly wry sense of humor that looks back to Eastern European dance music while taking it to new places. The band are bringing their high-octane show back to New York on what might be the year’s single best night of music, at Drom tomorrow night, September 25, as part of the New York Gypsy Festival. The Coceks open the night at 8:30 followed by explosive, theatrical Balkan punk rock band Bad Buka at 10, then Raya Brass Band – the tightest and most epic among all the great Eastern European acts in New York – and then similarly fiery if somewhat more traditional Baltimore Romany dance band Balti Mare, whose name means “big pond” in Romanian, hitting the stage at 1 AM the morning of the 26th. Advance tix are $15 and are still available at the club as of today.

Cocek! Brass Band’s debut album Here Comes Shlomo came out last year. It’s always fun to see a prediction come true, but they more than validated what this blog said about it, “ A good indication of the blend of virtuosity and raw power that this crew brings to the stage.” One of that night’s many high points was a minor-key number with a beat that veered between what could be reggae and could be disco – which, when you think about it, is disco in Serbia. Jaunty broken chords lept from the end of the band’s phrases, trumpet, trombone, tuba and standup drum all in sync.

A loopy, catchy, downwardly spirailng trombone riff contrasted with Dechenne’s calm, sailing lines on the next tune; then they slowed things down with a blazingly resonant, undulating  9/4 groove, Dechenne switching from intense to jaunty and carefree with a long solo against the rest of the band’s percolating harmonies. Then they switched to an edgy, circling, minor-key Ethiopiques drive! And a doomy waltz after that. There was a lot more material in the set which made it neither onto the tape nor into longterm memory.. Considering that the show was on a sketchy block in Harlem and it was late on a work night, and that there was still a decent crowd in the house, the Drom show will undoubtedly draw a lot more people: there will be line dancing.

State-of-the-Art Balkan Brass Tunes and a Mehanata Show from Cocek Brass Band

Sam Dechenne plays trumpet in long-running second-wave roots reggae band John Brown’s Body. But like a lot of brass players, he’s fluent in many styles, and has a thing for Balkan music, a style he explores in first-class Boston Slavic party band Klezwoods. And that turned out to be his holy grail, no surprise considering that hearing Fanfare Ciocarlia for the first time as a middleschooler changed his life forever. He’s got a new project, Cocek Brass Band, with a blazing new album Here Comes Shlomo (a pun on Dechenne’s first name), and an album release show coming up on Oct 4 at around 9 at Mehanata. The album is streaming at the band’s music page; cover is $10 and worth it: they played a New York show this past summer at Shrine and ripped the roof off the place.

On one level, they come across as sort of a Boston counterpart to New York’s Raya Brass Band, with smart, out-of-the-box original songwriting and fearsome chops. But on album at least, Dechenne’s group focuses more on tunesmithing than volcanic jams: what soloing there is here, and there’s not a ton of it, is extremely focused and terse. The band also has a theme song, which they use to kick off the album , tuba player Jim Gray providing a rat-a-tat backdrop while the two trumpets and trombone slink their way from moody hints of reggae to rapidfire chromatics over drummer Grant Smith’s echoey tapan drumbeat.

The title track morphs back and forth between a droll disco beat and a more traditional, swaying rhythm; likewise, the band sandwiches a little New Orleans street music amidst the minor-key riffage. A slow, pensive number, Vagabond Dreamin’ balances the balmy and the bittersweet, Dechenne ornamenting his solo with spiraling Serbian phrasing. Clown Walk, a waltz, actually keeps a lid on most of the cartoonish stuff – unless you’re thinking Edward Gorey. Like most clowns, this guy seems to be a pretty disquieting guy.

Juggler’s Journey brings back a slinky, bracingly bubbly minor-key groove with subtle hints of flamenco and even hip-hop. Who Cares opens as a series of variations on a challenging, trickily rhythmic riff, then goes in a more lingering, low-key, Spanish-tinged direction before the band brings it to a boil again. The coyly titled Drone Song builds out of a suspenseful, cinematic intro to a slow waltz, animated phrasing from the trumpets rising over long sustained tones from the tuba or trombone.

Magic Man and His Magic Hat and His Magic Vest works colorful hooks over long, clip-clop vamps. Figs or Dates returns to a jaunty blend of Romany firepower and a goodnatured New Orleans strut, with a dynamic, intense, trilling Dechenne solo. The band hangs out in a major key all the way through the slow, steady A’bab Cada over the broken chords and dancing basslines emanating from Gray’s tuba. That’s right, a dancing tuba: this guy really makes the big thing sing. And then they pick up the pace at the end.

The epic Slow Jump, Fast Fall pretty much follows the tangent implied by the title: a trudge up the mountainside, a long scampering ride down the flume where Dechenne gets to air out his extended technique, and a droll return to the opening theme. The album winds up with There Goes Shlomo, a more straight-ahead variation on the title track, and then the album’s lone vocal number, Mountain Love Song. brightly cheery horns holding the center as the singer attempts to hit his notes. It’s a great album and a good indication of the blend of virtuosity and raw power that this crew brings to the stage.

It Takes a Lot of Nerve to Call Your Band 10 Foot Ganja Plant

Oldschool dub reggae connoisseurs 10 Foot Ganja Plant celebrate the release of their thirteenth album, Skycatcher, with a rare live show at the Sinclair in Boston on Sept 20. The band plans to have the record “in all good record stores” by Sept 24. One thing that distinguishes 10 Foot Ganja Plant from the other dub groups is that they encompass the entire world of classic dub, from the tail end of the rocksteady era through Lee “Scratch” Perry, on forward to King Tubby and then their own main group, John Brown’s Body. The other is the songwriting: the tracks here are all actual songs, not just two-chord vamps where everything drops down to just the bass, or the keyboard, or the drums…you know the drill. Unless you’re high, that stuff gets old fast. This draws you in and keeps you there all the way through, an eclectic mix of oldschool Jamaican riddims and riffs, instrumentals and vocal numbers.

The first two tracks set the stage: instead of doing the song and then the version, they open with the version and then follow with the fully fleshed-out song so you can see the whole thing coming together. It’s a cool idea. As with the best dub, it’s the little touches that keep it interesting: wisps of melodica, a rattle, reverby conga hits and even wah synth like in the old days of John Brown’s Body back in the 90s. Jay Champany, whose raspy voice has sung many of this group’s songs over the years, carries the song, which doesn’t neglect crafty little elements like the echoey snare riffage in the background, and a fat bass break.

The anthemic Collect the Trophy sounds like Harry Chapin Cat’s in the Cradle done as dub reggae – and is this about the Cannabis Cup? Like most of the tracks here, Sounding Zone is anchored by a wicked bass hook, set against a casual, emphatic sax vamp, punchy brass in and out against woozy synth. State of Man has JBB founder emeritus Kevin Kinsella’s falsetto channeling the Congo’s Cedric Myton all the way through. The title track makes a stark contrast with its ominous minor-key harmonica and distantly austere, spacious vibe, then gets fleshed out with Kinsella on the mic.

Champany sings the angry, biting, minor-key Hypocrites in Town , “a warning to all deceivers,” the full band nimbly weaving in and out. The poppiest track here, Sometimes We Play reminds of vintage Marley, circa Kaya – again, it’s the bass hook that drives it. Champany returns to take the album out on a high note on the lively rocksteady of Sing and Dance. As is this band’s custom, there are no musician credits: these guys like mystery, in the real world as well as the musical sense.

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. Veteran 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.

Klezwoods Puts Out a Wild, Intense, Lush New Album

Klezwoods’ new album is a blast, plain and simple. If you like one haunting melody after another, this is for you. In the spirit of the dozens of gypsy and gypsy-punk bands that have sprung up in this century, Klezwoods are taking Jewish music in the same direction. What they do can be wild, but it’s also lush and often pensive – as the music of the gypsies often is. Their new album, The 30th Meridian – From Cairo to St. Petersburg With Love – is as informed as much by jazz as it is by any other style, including wildly successful diversions into Macedonian, Serbian, Egyptian, Greek and Jamaican music. The ten-piece band’s lineup is slightly expanded from last time around, with – are you ready for this – Joe Kessler on violin, Sam Dechenne (of John Brown’s Body) on trumpet, Jim Gray on tuba, Grant Smith on drums, Greg Loughman on bass, Michael McLaughlin (of Naftule’s Dream) on accordion, exotica and cimbalom jazz genius Brian O’Neill on percussion, Alec Spiegelman (of Miss Tess’ band the Bon Temps Parade) on clarinet and sax and Tev Stevig on electric guitar and oud, plus Becky Wexler on clarinet and vocals and Daniel Linden on trombone.

Wexler is training to be a cantor – and what a great destination for her. What a voice! Her wounded, unselfconsciously soulful alto and also her chillingly lyrical, crystalline clarinet grace a traditional song simply titled Shoes, which begins as a brooding, sad Russian waltz and quickly travels to the dramatic place where Bollywood meets the Jewish diaspora. The first track is characteristically catchy but edgy, balancing the tuba at the bottom,clarinet at the top, trilling uneasy trumpet playing call-and-response with the ensemble, Egyptian style over clip-clop percussion. After that, Dechenne’s Egypt Trip goes scurrying up to a Middle Eastern crescendo, his psychedelic trumpet (go figure, duh!) breaking it down before it comes back, stately and intense.

Kessler’s scurrying violin solo hands off to Spiegelman, who hands off to the rest of the band in turn on the wickedly fun Harmonika. Likewise, voices alternate throughout the band over O’Neill’s hard-hitting drums on the Balkan-flavored Hot Wheels. A Glass of Wine, a reggae arrangment of a traditional klezmer tune, features more rapidfire, intense clarinet.

Brass Belly, a tricky Serbian-tinged tune, layers cool clarinet over a flutter brass pulse and Stevig’s absolutely amazing electric oud before the violin takes it up with a spin. Play to Win, by Stevig, a wickedly catchy, unpredictably shapeshifting song features Stevig’s guitar doing all kinds of wild spiraling phrases. After the brisk, biting oompah clarinet tune Pick Up and Go, they follow with the album’s best song, Charambe, also by Stevig. A wicked blend of 60s style psychedelic rock and klezmer, it sounds like the Electric Prunes, Stevig bending his notes to their logical (or illogical) extremes.

What’s left here? A couple of rapidfire, jauntily defiant, accordion-fueled romps, one of them by Loughman; an absolutely joyous shout-out to Israeli music; and an unexpectedly quiet wee-hours scenario to close out the album. Who is the audience for this? Anyone who loves gypsy music, or Middle Eastern music, or the klezmer repertoire. It used to be that klezmer was a gateway drug to gypsy music, now it’s vice versa. Two diasporas, two styles worshipped by people whose ancestors frequently held this music in contempt. And one of the best albums of 2012. Klezwoods plays the cd release show at Spike Hill on a killer doublebill on Sept 8 at around 9, followed by excellent skaragga band Karikatura. Klezwoods are also at City Winery for the weekly klezmer brunch at around half past eleven the following morning, Sept 9 – yikes!