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A Current-Day Roots Reggae Masterpiece From Taj Weekes & Adowa

Most reggae fans, if they didn’t know the band, would never guess that Taj Weekes & Adowa aren’t one of the golden-age bands of the 70s, contemporaries of Bob Marley, Burning Spear and the rest. Those familiar with studio recording from across the ages would notice the cleaner production quality, as opposed to what was coming out of cramped, dingy Jamdown analog rooms throughout that time (and what that stuff sounds like as overcompressed mp3s from the web). Weekes has an individualistic sound, setting his aphoristic, socially conscious lyrics to slinky, artfully orchestrated organic grooves with low-key guitar multitracks, flowing organ, incisive piano, and a tight, fat rhythm section. What sets Weekes apart is that he doesn’t just vamp out on a couple of chords – his melodies are anthemic and shapeshifting, as equally informed by psychedelic rock and the 60s as by Bob Marley. His expressive voice sails up to the rafters on occasion when he wants to really drive a point home or match the music. Weekes and the band are playing the album release show for their new one Love Herb & Reggae at the Knitting Factory on Feb 12 at around 10 for $12 in advance. Popular 90s artist Mighty Mystic opens at around 8.

The album – streaming at Storyamp – kicks off with Let Your Voice, as in “let your voice be as loud as your silence.” In an age where so much of what’s left of reggae is ditsy good-vibes hippie bs, this allusive revolutionary anthem is a caustic blast of Caribbean heat. Weekes follows that with the similarly catchy, subtly dub-tinged Life in the Red. It’s an unselfconsciously poetic look at breaking free…but for a price. “Traded my desk for convenience of life…caught dead fighting fire with a feather,’ he warns.

The sad rocksteady ballad Full Sight is another example of how Weekes’ songwriting looks back to far more sophisticated era in reggae, both musically and lyrically. Giant Beast is a vengeful anti-tyranny anthem with a mighty intro – “One day her name no longer spoken, one day her ruins to my right,” Weekes nonchalantly intones. The album has a couple of version of the single Here I Stand, a brave choice of song in the world where Boom Bye Bye still tends to be the norm rather than the exception.

You don’t need no wings to fly,” is the mantra of the soaring, sunny title track. Bullet for a Gun casts Weekes’ antiviolence message into a elegant soul-jazz influenced ballad with some hints of vintage dub. Mediocrity is an especially defiant number: “I won’t wallow in self-pity and I won’t make peace with mediocrity …I shun the comfort of compromise,” Weekes insists. More songwriters ought to make that promise.

Rebels to the Street adds gospel vocals to what could be a vintage Brixton Riots-era Aswad song. The Laws, the most Marley-esque track here, revisits age-old logic for legalizing the herb – what are we watiing for, in New York it’s impossible to walk down the street or ride the train without at least catching a whiff of the wisdom weed. The album winds up with Was It You, a love song with some sweet melodica that reminds of Augustus Pablo; the acoustic Rebel, which attests to how oppression creates “criminals;” and St. Lucia on My Mind, a fond shout-out to Weekes’ home turf in the islands. It’s hard to think of another roots reggae album this purist and smart and original released in the last few years.

Taj Weekes & Adowa – The Best Thing in Roots Reggae Right Now

[republished from New York Music Daily’s older sister blog Lucid Culture]

Taj Weekes is just about the best thing happening in roots reggae right now. The world is full of acts who claim to be inspired by Bob Marley, but the St. Lucia-born bandleader is really on to what Marley meant to reggae. On his new album Waterlogged Soul Kitchen with his band Adowa (named after the famous 19th century battle where the Ethiopians crushed an incursion by Italian imperialists), what Weekes takes from Jah Bob is a tunefulness that goes beyond the usual two-chord vamps, and the kind of arrangements that made the golden age of reggae in the late 70s so unforgettable and fun: layers of sparse, thoughtful Chinna Smith-style lead guitar, melodic bass, the occasional spice of horns and the slinky one-drop from the drums. While Weekes has a similarly high, penetrating voice, his style is hardly a ripoff – it’s a lot closer to the dreamy warmth of Dennis Brown in his more contemplative moments. Weekes’ lyrics range from gently optimistic to scathingly aware: while he resists the categorization of “socially conscious artist,” his insights are all over the place. Weekes has his eyes open, and he doesn’t shy away from trouble.

The album opens with Just a Dream, a defining moment: “Fear, fear, go away, you will come another day,” Weekes sings, not unsarcastically. Likewise, the song’s intro echoes a spaghetti western theme.Yet it’s an upbeat song, an anthem to hold on for better days ahead. The second track, Janjaweed has a catchy rocksteady hook but a chilling lyric about the “malignant seed” that’s terrorized Darfur for what seems like decades now.

B4 the War is a sad, evocative look back “before I was a puppet, before I killed for profit,” lowlit by Chris Laybourne’s vivid flute and a sarcastic bit of a march to end it. Weekes follows with Rain Rain, a pretty, Marleyesque lament, and the requisite ganja tune, Two Joints, an indomitable road trip tale.

You Ain’t Ready for the Heavy has a fat, catchy groove that underplays the defiant challenge of the lyrics and a biting guitar solo that’s like Al Anderson gone to the Middle East. With its simple, swaying mento-flavored acoustic guitar and organ, Anthems of Hope is sort of Weekes’ Redemption Song, a reason to carry on in spite of war on all fronts, the catastrophic effects of global warming and “color coded fear.” Weekes ends up the album with two more evocative antiwar numbers, one with a Jammin-style organ melody and another with the feel of a vintage Toots & the Maytals tune – except that this one’s told from the point of view of a child born of rape in a war somewhere in the third world. The album ends up on a powerful note with Drill, which broodingly and sarcastically riffs on John McCain’s “drill baby drill” mantra. If roots reggae is your thing and you don’t know this guy, you’re missing out. Weekes plays frequent NYC shows, and they are always excellent: watch this space for upcoming dates