New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: roots reggae

Ferociously Lyrical, Amazingly Psychedelic, Eclectic Sounds From the Free Radicals

Fearlessly political Houston-based collective the Free Radicals have a brilliant, insightful new album, White Power Outage Volume 1 out and streaming at Bandcamp. Over catchy, psychedelically arranged organic grooves that range from hard funk, to roots reggae, to dub and even surf music, a vast cast of over fifty artists speak truth to power with witheringly insightful lyricism. This album is like a great musical podcast about the state of the world right at the first strike of the lockdown: over and over again, this crew breaks down the big picture in ways that make sense, especially considering what’s happened since March 16 here in New York and even earlier in Wuhan.

Not surprisingly, it took more than a year to pull together all 23 tracks here. Hip-hop artist Obidike Kamau kicks it off over with America Is a Lie, over a slinky, live funk groove with wah guitar:

I know how much this hurts your feelings
It’s not because you strive for justice, but I’ve heard this bullshit all my life
The propaganda you spit, the rose-colored myths you declare
…I guess it goes back to your gangster beginnings
Your genocidal belief in unhappy endings
…I know a thief appreciates possession being nine tenths of the law
And you’re a liar
I ain’t in fear, your reign is temporary
I see it leaving here

EQuality delivers another broadside so good all 58 seconds of it are worth reprinting:

If multiple black men are found dead in the apartment of a millionaire tied to the Democratic Party named Ed Buck, and nobody investigates his role in the incident, does it make a sound?
Bartender I’ll take another round
But pouring kool-aid in a wine glass don’t make it merlot
A cat having kittens in the oven don’t make them biscuits
Well I’ll be George Washington Carver selling peanuts to the peanut gallery at the art gallery See what’s on the walls, pictures of poverty and pain
‘Cause that’s what sells n____s to negros
Some inverse tradeoff
Paid off the most popular rapper so the house can run the field n____s
Capitalism and Christ cut a deal in the back of the Vatican
As the Pope pours another round of scotch
Excuse my cynicism
The gospel according to a con

“Maybe we just catch a case and disappear without a trace,” says rapper Nosaprise over the loopy psychedelic backdrop of Cash Out — and he’s not talking about COVID.

“Beware the boogieman, terror threats scaring us out of psychological reason,” D-Ology warns in Look at That, a far-reaching catalog of threats from police brutality to transhumanism.

The Great Australian Heist, featuring hip-hop lyricist Bryte from down under, reminds how the slave trade devastated his country’s indigenous population…and how that resonates today in, as just one example, the way fracking is destroying the country’s already scarce water supply. He doesn’t get into the fascist lockdown situation there, the most repressive clampdown on human rights outside of China and Israel right now.

Swatara Olushola takes over the mic in Racist Car No Driver, revealing a sinister white supremacist motivation behind driverless cars: their “garbage in, garbage out” technology was designed not to recognize the presence of black people in the street. Earlier in the record she contributes another rocksteady-tinged protest song that also pokes savage fun at technosupremacists.

The musicians here turn out to be a phenomenal roots reggae band. The best of many of the reggae tunes here are the intricately arranged Daughter of Diana, with Kam Franklin on vocals, and Student Debt Dub, an Ethiopiques number fueled by bass and brass. Yet the best straight-up instrumental on the album is the sarcastically titled Deepwater Horizon, a slinky, reverbtoned minor-key surf rock instrumental – it’s really cool how the bass gets to carry the melody for a verse.

Later on the band careen into punk klezmer for a bit, then toward the end of the record Matt Kelly contributes Piece of the Rock, a Celtic/punkgrass mashup sung from the point of view of a greedy oligarch. “Come take a hit of my rock,” he snarls.

Highlights among the many other tracks here also include also fiery, politically charged reggaeton from Karina Nistal; Rashard’s More Power, a political update on vintage James Brown spiced with vibraphone and horns; and Genesis Blu & Jasmine Christine’s Chariot Rock, a conscious hip-hop reinvention of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot over dubby, Ethiopian-tinged loops. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page here at the end of the month.

Smart, Politically Woke Party Music From Los Mocosos

Old ska bands never die: the party never stops. Look at the Skatalites. They invented ska, and even as they lost some members along the way – starting early, with Don Drummond – they had a fifty-year career. Los Mocosos have a long, long way to go before they get that far, but don’t rule them out. And they play a lot more than just ska. Their latest album, wryly titled All Grown Up, is streaming at Bandcamp.

Throughout the record, the band switch between English and Spanish, typically in the same song. They start out with the party songs and get more political as the album goes along. They open with the title cut, a catchy minor-key mashup of rocksteady, salsa and ska. “‘I’m just here to play my tunes, get your body to move and get all the ladies,” frontman Juan Ele sings in a resonant croon with a strong resemblance to Steel Pulse’s David Hinds.

Speaking of classic reggae, the second track, United We Stand, immediately brings to mind Bob Marley’s Exodus, right down to Steve Carter’s slinky organ, Happy Sanchez’s tightly clustering bassline and the punchy brass section. It’s a reminder that we’re one big nation of immigrants who need to stick together and fight, or else we’re all in trouble.

Mirala is a psychedelic cumbia party tune with balmy horns and a little reggaeton. Ready for the Weekend shifts back and forth between a turbocharged oldschool disco groove and a ska bounce. Then the band hit a simmering roots reggae pulse and make their way into a Sympathy For the Devil-style sway in Caminos, an anthem for hardworking strugglers everywhere.

They slow things down even further with the twinkling retro rock ballad Memories of Love and then give themselves a shout-out with the salsa-ska theme Viva Los Mocosos. Ele contemplates how an immigrant fits into a neighborhood and its history with It’s All Good, a brooding mashup of lowrider funk, oldschool soul and hip-hop.

The album’s most defiant track is Libre, a big, soaring rocksteady anthem. They close with Brothers & Sisters, a call for unity. It’s been a brutal year, and it’s been a long time since there’s been any party music on this page. Feels good to know bands like this still exist.

Director Ted Bafaloukos’ Posthumous Photo Book Captures the Turmoil and Glory of 1970s Reggae

Ted Bafaloukos’ 1979 film Rockers is iconic in reggae circles. Its soundtrack captures many of the foremost figures from the golden age of roots reggae at the peak of their powers. The movie became one of that year’s fifty highest grossing films. And it was almost never made.

The late director and photographer reveals the drama, the turbulence, passion, and ever-present danger surrounding the artistic crucible of the mid-70s Jamaican music scene in his richly illustrated coffee table book, ROCKERS: Ted Bafaloukos + 1970s New York + Kingston + On Set Mayhem = The Making of Reggae’s Most Iconic Film, out this year from Gingko Press.

The Greek-born Bafaloukos got his start at the Rhode Island School of Design. His steamship captain father had sent him there after discovering, while docked in Providence, that the school drew students from as faraway as California. The younger Bafaloukos earned media accolades for his photos while still in college. But by 1978 he was struggling as a freelancer, largely supported by his wife’s $78-a-week sweatshop paycheck, sharing a loft at the corner of Varick and Franklin Streets with several friends.

He’d discovered reggae a few years earlier and fallen in love with it after seeing a show by melodica player Augustus Pablo and his band at the Tropical Cove, a club located above Gertie’s Discount Store in Brooklyn. He intuitively grasped the connection between the communal esthetic of reggae and the folk music he’d been immersed in at community celebrations as a child in the Aegean island village of Apikia.

Aided by his new friends from the New York reggae scene, he traveled to Jamaica and decided then and there to make a reggae movie, despite having neither script nor cast. Bafaloukos enlisted several New York friends as production crew, and a hippie neighbor with money to be the producer.

Bafaloukos’ photos from his initial expeditions are a goldmine for reggae fans. The most choice shots are black-and-white. Singer Kiddus I, with record producer Jack Ruby behind him, sits slit-eyed with both a cheat sheet and a spliff in hand at a recording session: it’s clear that this is all live, with no iso booths. A young, thin Burning Spear perches triumphantly atop the ruins of a slavery-era jail in his native St. Ann’s Bay. Jah Spear (who also appeared in the film) pops up again and again, most memorably backstage with an equally rail-thin Patti Smith, laughing it up. And Big Youth is captured on his signature motorbike on a Kingston street, showing off his jewel-embedded teeth

In full color, there’s dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry in his ramshackle, rundown original Black Ark Studio before he burned it down: from Bafaloukos’ description of the setup and gear, Perry’s engineering genius becomes all the more astonishing. A series of 1975 portraits capture Bob Marley on Sixth Avenue near West 8th Street in Manhattan. There’s owl-glassed, bearded folk music legend and experimental filmmaker Harry Smith with Burning Spear drummer (and eventual star of the film) Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace. Impressively, the book’s candid photos far outnumber stills from the movie.

Which is basically The Bicycle Thief transposed to Jamaica, with tons of classic songs and a cast comprising the most colorful people the filmmaker had met while traveling across the island. “For those who think that movies get made in the editing room, Rockers is not a case in point,” he avers. As he tells it, the film ended up being even more highly improvised than originally planned.

The problem with crowdsourcing your cast is that a bigger crowd comes with it. It ended up taking Bafaloukos more than a couple nickels to buy his way out of many pickles, several brushes with death and, as he tells it, a mutiny by the movie’s two stars, who had held out for more money. Considering how hard both cast and crew partied when they weren’t working, and how many challenges – several at gunpoint – they had to overcome, it’s a miracle they were able to finish it.

And considering how breakneck – literally – the pace of the filming was, some of the most memorable moments in the narrative are the asides. We find out that Earl Chin, who in 1975 had not yet become the legendary host of Rockers TV, is a crazy driver: gee, big surprise. The movie’s crucial set piece – a very fickle, used motorbike – ends up being delivered by none other than the Cool Ruler, Gregory Isaacs. And Bafaloukos recounts the priceless moment at Bob Marley’s Peace Concert where Jacob Miller leaps from the stage, goes up to a cop guarding the Prime Minister and offers him a spiff. When the cop declines, Miller steals the guy’s helmet and finishes his set wearing it.

What Bafaloukos never mentions is residuals. He ended up retiring to a villa on the Aegean. it would be interesting to know how much Horsemouth, his co-star “Dirty Harry” Hall, the Montego Bay mystic named Higher, or the Reverend Roach and his A.M.E choir, to name a few of the cast members, came away with.

A Reggae Record For Drinkers: Oxymoron or Rare Artifact?

Today’s album is a real rarity: a roots reggae record about drinking. It’s actually the second in bassist Victor Rice‘s planned trilogy. The first one, big surprise, was titled Smoke. This one, heavily inspired by red wine, is called Drink and is streaming at his Bandcamp page. On one hand, it’s akin to a night barhopping around Rice’s Sao Paolo home turf. While it also reflects the diversity of influences he’s incorporated into his music since leaving New York for Brazil in 2002, this album will definitely resonate with anybody who remembers his legendary Friday night residency at the Parkside back in the late 90s and early zeros.

To be fair, not everybody who likes reggae smokes weed, and the reverse is definitely true. How does this record sound after several rounds of 24-ounce cans? Pretty damn good. Throughout the album, Rice’s playing is very chill and in-the-pocket: original Skatalites bassist Lloyd Brevett would no doubt approve.

The album opens with a wistful, minor-key rocksteady groove, La Mura, which reflects Rice’s deep, bass-oriented production sound: the guitars have more reverb than the horns, but everybody gets plenty. Trombonist Buford O’Sullivan and tenor sax player David Loos take moody solos before the Burning Spear-inflected horns kick in again.

Drummer Tony Mason propels the southwestern gothic-tinged second track, Simao, with a lightly syncopated clave, guitarists Jay Nugent and Teddy Kumpel adding skank and Memphis soul, respectively. The Demander is a goodnatured ska tune dedicated to a dictatorial cat, while This Is Fine is Brazilian rocksteady with summery solos from sax and trumpet.

Agenor de Lorenzi infuses Bebida with a similarly cheery electric piano solo over drummer Nico Leonard’s low-key shuffle beat; they take it out with bluesy solo sax. Rice goes back toward Burning Spear-style roots, but also bossa nova for Arouche, which kicks off the record’s b-side.

The only real reggae references amid the conversational horns in Five are Leonard’s classic turnarounds, not necessarily where you would expect them. The band return to warmly upbeat rocksteady with Because I Can and then Madrid, which recalls Spain a lot less than Kingston, 1965, Kumpel adding a low-key, purposeful solo. They finally plunge into deep dub to close the record with Time to Go.

Roots Reggae Rebels Steel Pulse: Never More Relevant Than They Are Now

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate album to listen to in our virus-scare isolation than Steel Pulse‘s Mass Manipulation, streaming at Spotify. It’s the iconic roots reggae band’s best album in two decades. It’s dedicated to fifty-four individuals murdered by racists, many of those killers members of the police. The individuals remembered here begin with twelve-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, all the way to fifty-eight-year-old Gregory Gunn in Charleston, South Carolina. Several of our fellow New Yorkers are on that list.

This is a magnum opus that’s long overdue. Frontman David Hinds’ voice is a little grittier than it was when the group exploded out of Birmingham in the late 70s, but his songwriting is absolutely undiminished, through a total of seventeen tracks. As to be expected, the production is techier than the clangy, distinctively trebly sound that defined them during their early years.

They open with Rize, a characteristically catchy revolutionary anthem. Stop You Coming and Come is a respectable attempt to blend the band’s classic 70s/early 80s sound with an elegant keyboard-centric production style: “We’re building us a brand new nation, only then the prejudice and bigotry will leave us alone,” Hinds predicts.

The band channel a rebelliously defiant vibe in Thank the Rebels. Likewise, Justice in Jena has a majestic arrangement matching Hinds’ scathing lyric about the infamous Jena, Louisiana racist attack Then he assaults the sex trade in Human Trafficking – has another artist ever been willing to confront those horrors? Pedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s extortion scheme hadn’t come to light yet when the album was released last year, although the scandals at the highest levels of the Republican Party here and the Tories in the UK were old news by then.

Cry Cry Blood is a decent facsimile of the fierce witness anthems Steel Pulse would become famous for forty years ago. Don’t Shoot, a wickedy catchy, chillingly cynical narrative, draws on the murder of Eric Garner – a large black Staten Island street vendor harrassed for years and eventually killed by police in front of a luxury condo whose owners didn’t want him there.

Jimmy “Senyah” Haynes plays biting, Middle Eastern-tinged acoustic guitar on the album’s longest track, No Satan Side, a corrosive look at economic and environmental exploitation in Africa. With N.A.T.T.Y., Hinds sends a shout-out to Rastas keeping it real. With its cold, techy string synth, the album’s title track is a cautionary tale about the ultimate consequences of mass brainwashing. World Gone Mad has a blend of 80s roots sonics and 60s rocksteady; Hinds’ son Baruch adds a sharp, insightful rap cameo.

Awash in shifting keyboard textures, Black and White Oppressors reminds that fascism is not an exclusively caucasian pathology. The Final Call, a fire-and-brimstone warning, has a bizarre contrast between harmonica and a vocoder choir of what sounds like alien beings. The cover of Steve Winwood’s Higher Love (retitled as Rasta Love) is the album’s bounciest track; Hinds finally winds it up with Nations of the World, the most Bob Marley-influenced song, with those aliens on backing vocals again.

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.

Two Sides of One of This Era’s Great Trumpeters

Today’s Halloween episode here does not concern a macabre record or a dire political prediction. It’s a plug for a delightful annual Brooklyn Halloween tradition: the block party on Waverly Avenue between Willoughby and DeKalb in Ft. Greene, packed with kids on a mission to fill up their candy bags, adults trudging after them, Pam Fleming’s Dead Zombie Band serenading everybody. For the last four years, the trumpeter and her slinky, cinematic group have played the party, starting at around 6 PM and ending at around 9. Sometimes they do two sets, sometimes three. You never know what you’re  going to get. It’s Halloween, after all. Take the G to Clinton-Washington, it’s running all night this Wednesday.

Although the Dead Zombie Band’s album is a great soundtrack for this blog’s favorite holiday, Fleming has finally released her long, long-awaited new album, Buds, with another project, Fearless Dreamer, their first since 2004. It’s one of the catchiest jazz albums of the year, and streaming at youtube. The opening cut, I’ve Had Enough, sets the stage, a smoky, torchy, absolutely gorgeous, augustly bluesy 6/8 minor-key ballad. The bandleader plays a terse solo as Jim West’s organ swirls behind her, drummer Todd Isler and bassist Leo Traversa supplying a no-nonsense, surprisingly hard-hitting groove. Tenor saxophonist Allen Won’s cries and bends add vivid, pissed-off intensity: this may have political subtext.

The album’s title track is a jubilantly syncopated, Beatlesque anthem, West switching to piano, Peter Calo’s guitar adding spiky textures. A bubbly bass intro kicks off Power Spot, a bright theme that subtly veers through a triplet rhythm toward Ethiopia: Fleming and Won contribute balmy solos over some neat, dub-tinged counterpoint.

Taken Away is one of those great, somber themes that Fleming writes so well, disembodied spirits from Won’s soprano sax flitting and sailing while Fleming builds a clenched-teeth, elegaic crescendo over a sparely intertwining backdrop. Coolman Funk is a similarly expert detour into roots reggae. Blues-infused and incisive over a vintage Marleyesque bassline, Fleming draws on her several years as one of the three women in Burning Spear’s Burning Brass.

4:20 AM is a time and place many of us would remember if we could: what the hell, one more hit before passing out, right? But the title of that song here turns out to reflect more of a general, moody wee-hours tableau than anything aromatic and green, shifting through altered reggae toward swing contentment.

Isler’s subtle, martially-tinged clave propels the group through Shades, a brooding but kinetic latin groove as catchy as any track here. Calo’s gritty guitar and Fleming’s mighty horn chart burn through the big soul epic Mama Don’t Leave Us Now. The album’s final cut is Keep It Movin’, a strutting, bursting funk tune that’s a dead ringer for classic Earth Wind & Fire. Beyond her work with Jah Spear and with high-voltage New Orleans/soca/blues jamband Hazmat Modine, this is arguably the best thing Fleming’s ever released: look for it on the best jazz albums of 2018 page here at the end of the year.

Doctor Nativo Brings His Catchy, Psychedelic Guatemalan Freedom Fighter Anthems to Lincoln Center

Guatemala’s Doctor Nativo, a.k.a. Juan Martinez, plays a mix of psychedelic tropical styles, from cumbia to roots reggae. His fearlessly political new album Guatemaya, which often brings to mind Chicha Libre covering the Clash, is streaming at Bandcamp. His Spanish-language lyrics address issues from immigration, to cultural clashes and the ongoing struggle for freedom against CIA-sponsored anti-democracy factions who’ve plagued Latin American for decades.

Doctor Nativo’s dad Arturo Martinez was a Guatemalan freedom fighter murdered by an anti-democracy death squad after they discovered that his restaurant was being used for secret meetings. The younger Martinez is bringing that defiant legacy along with his catchy, anthemic tropical band to the Lincoln Center atrium this Thurs, Sept 13 at 7:30 PM. Get there early if you want a seat, and keep in mind that the almost-weekly series of free shows there routinely sells out.

The opening track on the new album is a biting minor-key roots reggae tune lit up by the horn section of trombonist Danilo Rodriguez – who also plays marimba, bass, cuatro, charango and harp here – alongside Sous Sebas Sax. It appears that Ivan Duran is on guitar here – Honduran surf music legend Guayo Cedeno also plays lead guitar on the album.

The second track, Ay Morena, is a slinky chicha party groove, which the band takes to further psychedelic heights with the next track, Sabrosura, the hypnotically rustic, strummy charango contrasting with Cedeno’s snaky wah-wah riffs.

You might think that Zion would be a reggae tune, but instead it’s chicha, speaking truth to power against the kind of oppressors that the Martinez family knew as the grimmest kind of reality. Likewise, the bandleader keeps the theme going on a personal level in B-Boy, a rapidfire, lyrical mashup of reggaeton and psychedelic cumbia, and then in El Mero Mero with its surreal contrast of electric chicha instrumentation and otherworldly chirimilla, the ancient Mayan oboe.

The mix of looming salsa horns, electric and acoustic textures in El 20 is just as strangely kaleidoscopic, anchoring its insistent message of global unity…or else. La Voz Popular also has a brief reggaeton cameo and a snaky cumbia vamp.

The horns get a little spicier in Kandela; the album’s last track is the anti-corruption protest anthem Pa’Que Se Levanten, which ought to get everybody up on their feet at the Lincoln Center gig. If Doctor Nativo is bringing Cedeno on this tour, the shows will be a lot wilder than this tight, smartly produced album suggests.

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?

Deep Roots and New Reggae at SOB’s Last Night

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.