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Tag: rocksteady

In Memoriam: Toots Hibbert

Toots Hibbert, the hyperkinetic showman, reggae icon and leader of Toots & the Maytals, died this past September 11 in a hospital in Kingston in his native Jamaica. He was 77.

When he and the Maytals recorded Do the Reggay in 1968, it was a typical pop music attempt at creating a dance meme and selling a few records. But the term outlived the dance by decades, and Hibbert got credit for giving a name to the slinky, ganja-fueled music that had morphed out of ska into rocksteady and was slowing down into even more psychedelic territory by the time he wrote the song.

The group first connected with an audience beyond Jamaica on the wings of their appearance in the film The Harder They Come, performing the wickedly catchy rocksteady hit Sweet and Dandy live in the studio. That subtly cynical wedding-night narrative is one of the strongest tracks on the film’s soundtrack, which was the first exposure to reggae for millions of fans outside of Jamdown.

Hibbert was a consummate frontman, a ball of energy strutting and spinning and getting a serious workout in front of the band, which became known officially as Toots & the Maytals in 1972. With a sweet, Smokey Robinson-influenced delivery that became grittier over the years, and a whirling, astonishingly energetic stage presence heavily influenced by James Brown, Hibbert would typically prowl and spin across the stage for two hours or more as the group behind him vamped along.

The classic Toots & the Maytals album is Funky Kingston, also from 1972. His double live album from 1980 is the closest approximation to a show by one of the most dynamic singers ever to hit the stage: and when he hit it, you felt it. Pressure Drop, pressure drop, pressure gonna drop on you! The Clash, and eventually innumerable other punk and ska bands, would cover that song.

By the 1990s, Hibbert was already past fifty, but he never slowed down. New York concerts in the middle of the decade at places like Tramps and Irving Plaza found him working up a sweat in front of crowds of white fratboys. He knew the deal: people had come out to dance and party, and he was there to deliver. He didn’t talk to the crowd much, leading the group through expansive versions of his big populist anthems and extended dance jams that would go on for fifteen or even twenty minutes. Hibbert continued to tour relentlessly throughout the rest of the decade and beyond.

Hibbert was a consummate professional and a genuinely nice guy. He served jail time for marijuana possession in Jamaica in the 1960s – and wrote one of his biggest hits, the witheringly cynical 54-46 Was My Number while behind bars. He considered himself a Rastafarian but always sported a short haircut. When asked about his hairstyle by Rockers TV host Earl Chin, Hibbert’s response was simple: “Jah trim.” What he meant by that was that Haile Selassie also kept his hair short rather than wearing dreadlocks.

Ironically, Hibbert’s best song was a rare slow one, Get Up Stand Up. Predating Peter Tosh’s song of the same name by a couple of years, this brooding minor-key anthem is one of the most understatedly haunting calls to action ever written. Hibbert’s imperturbable energy, his quirky sense of humor and ironclad logic will be badly missed. Condolences to all those who were lucky enough to know him .

Classic, Poignant Rocksteady Sounds and More Uptown Saturday Night

Silvana up on 116th Street is not a place for listening. It’s a Columbia hangout, a place for those who can afford an Ivy League education without benefit of a scholarship. But with the precipitous decline of Manhattan nightlife, it’s become a magnet for a lot of good bands, especially from out of town, who don’t buy Facebook likes and “friends” to satisfy the bean counters who are booking more and more of what’s left of the borough’s music venues. Though the segues between bands uptown tomorrow, Dec 16 characteristically make no sense at all, it could be a fun night if you can get close enough to the stage to hear them. Entertaining, high-energy newgrass crew the River Bones Band kick off the evening at 8, followed eventually at 10 by the smoky roots vibes of Dubistry  and then at 11 by oldschool-style rocksteady/roots reggae singer Caz Gardiner and her excellent band.

Gardiner is a throwback to the glory days of the Skatalites and Darlene Shaffer, a singer with jazz chops and all kinds of subtle wiggles and blue notes. To get a sense of where Gardiner’s coming from, download her free single at Bandcamp. The A-side is a skanking, marvelously nuanced rocksteady cover of the Searchers’ classic 1964 hit Needles and Pins. it’s not as good as the Ramones’ version, but it’s awfully close.

The B-side, recorded live on tour in Argentina, is Cycles, a perfect evocation of late 60s Kingston, Gardiner’s voice equal part resolute calm and edgy unease in a situation where “things can’t get worse right now”. It’s a fair guess that a lot of people will be be dancing to this one Saturday night.

Catchy Caribbean Party Music from the Big Takeover

The Big Takeover’s new album Children of the Rhythm – streaming at Spotify – is what the Brits used to call two-tone music back in the punk era. Inspired by the multi-racial, pan-Caribbean sounds of bands like the Specials and the English Beat, the Big Takeover concoct an instantly identifiable, catchy, upbeat, wickedly tuneful blend of oldschool soul music, ska, rocksteady and soca. Frontwoman Nee Nee Rushie delivers the songs in an unselfconsciously clear, chirpy, full-throated, enticingly warm voice. Rather than trying to be seductive, she’s getting a party started, and it’s hard not to want to follow her. And she’s so steady, so pitch-perfect that the idea of autotuning her would be ridiculous (not that autotune in itself isn’t ridiculous, but that’s another story).

The album opens with the title track, a soca tune. It starts out with Lora Cohan’s organ and Jose Lopez’s guitar teaming up to mimic the sound of a steel pan, Rushie not wasting her time getting in some sly innuendos, a slinky organ solo giving way to a biting guitar break as the song hits a peak. “Grab a bottle and some oranges!” Rushie insists on another soca-flavored party anthem a little later on. And Rain – as in “no one is gonna rain on my parade” – recalls the English Beat at their catchiest, Rushie’s vocals reaching for an eye-rolling exasperation.

No Way is the first of the rocksteady numbers, with a clever arrangement that slowly adds layers as it goes along punchy horns and tinkly electric piano balanced by an acoustic piano track further down the scale. Cohan’s long, gorgeous organ solo on Stay with Me, another rocksteady tune, is the album’s instrumental high point .

Down with the Ship is straight-up ska, with gospel-tinged organ, a spiky guitar solo, its irresistibly bouncy tune contrasting with Rushie’s sad lyrics. New Love, which is more of a ska-pop song (there’s that English Beat influence again), is more optimistic. “I’m not here to make you distraught,” Rushie insists over the punch of the horns – Chas Montrose on baritone sax and Andrew Vogt on trombone – and the swirl of the organ. And Grain of Sugar vamps out an oldschool soul groove, a showcase for Rushie’s soaring upper register.

There’s also a trio of reggae tunes. Tired of Being So Lonely has edgy guitar and sax solos that contrast with its laid-back tropical groove. Unjust Judge evokes Bob Marley with its sardonic lyrics and catchy chorus; the album ends with Where Do We Dub, a skeletal, oldschool 70s-style dub plate pulsing along with Rob Kissner’s fat bass and Hector Becerra’s echoey drums. The band does well on the road – their next gig is June 7 at the Black Oak Tavern upstate in Oneonta, New York.

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.

Good Stuff from Alfonzo Velez and King Porter Stomp

Endorsements from other musicians are usually BS: it’s usually some quid-pro-quo thing, pretty much bought and paid for. But when noir piano titan Fernando Otero says something good about somebody, you just have to pay attention and Otero is right: Alfonso Velez is the real deal. He has a couple of tracks up at his bandcamp that sound like The Verve for the heroes down at Ground Zero – in Zucotti Park, that is. It’s a classic mix of accessible anthemic sweep and moody intensity.

Meanwhile, Brighton, UK’s King Porter Stomp are doing a deliciously original mix of oldschool analog Afrobeat, rocksteady and hip-hop. Here’s Let It All Out, a big kick-ass new anthem from an ep scheduled to come out early next year.