Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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

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

August 25, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dub Is A Weapon Vaporises the Competition

Dub Is a Weapon is another one of those great live bands that everybody takes for granted: like John Brown’s Body (just reviewed here), the road is where they excel. But they’re just as good in the studio.Want to get to know Dub Is a Weapon? This band knows how to get you hooked. Head on over to their music page and get four free downloads of their most popular songs. Then you can download the live shows up at archive.org. After all that, if reggae, or dub, or stoner music is your thing, you will probably want their latest album Vaporised, which is just out.

These guys really max out the possibilities you can get with reggae. Their instrumentals typically kick in with a catchy hook, feature a lot of gorgeous guitar/alto sax harmonies, and as much as you can get absolutely lost in a lot of this, it’s more straight-ahead and tuneful than all the dub acts who just vamp out on a single chord. If you know somebody who thinks dubstep is cool, turn them on to this – it’s the real deal. In fact, in a strangely woozy way, this album is one of the best of 2011.

These songs are long, six or seven minutes at a clip. The first one, Turbulence sets an eerie minor tune over a bubbly bassline and quickly goes down to just bass, percussion and wah guitar. Then the horns come in – it’s like classic Lee “Scratch” Perry but with more energy. They go spinning down to bass versus drums, then up to a sunbaked bluesmetal guitar solo that eventually pans your headphones. Finally, after about six minutes, it goes back to the hook and then sneaks out. It’s a good indication of what to expect as the album goes deeper.

Turmoil lets the aliens in the front door early. A balmy sax emerges and floats overhead, the bass goes up an octave, unexpectedly, the band cooks and then chills out again. Track three, Seven Doors starts out as ska before the rhythm goes completely haywire – is that 17/4 time? And then they do a really cool organ interlude, like dub Lonnie Smith. Asheville is not the bluegrass that its title might lead you to believe: it’s a launching pad for a long, thoughtful alto sax solo. The one vocal number here, Forwarding Home, is a sly, knowing Rasta repatriation anthem with a nice chromatic chorus and lots of snaky Middle Eastern-tinged guitar.

Persistence is another fast one with a sweet Balkan horn hook, a brisk drum/bass interlude and a lot of tongue-in-cheek scratchy guitar noise. A slinky minor-key groove, Curva Peligrosa has more of those nice guitar/sax harmonies, a slow, hypnotic guitar solo and a couple of echoey breakdowns. The best solo of all of them is from the guitar, on the devious, poppy Destiny – which is actually a one-chord jam if you think hard enough about it. The last cut, Insurrection keeps a suspenseful roots pulse going all the way from the trippy intro through some LOL swoopy stuff from a theremin, which the guitar finally nudges out of the picture, as if to say, enough. Then the theremin comes back in just to give the guitar the finger. Watch this space for NYC area shows.

April 27, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

John Brown’s Body and the Easy Star All-Stars: The Ultimate 4/20 Experience?

What happened Wednesday night? Oh yeah, it was 4/20 (google it if you don’t know already). Seriously, though, John Brown’s Body and the Easy Star All-Stars brought a potentially mind-melting bill of cutting-edge roots reggae to an enthusiastic, sold-out, smoked-out crowd at Highline Ballroom. JBB are a band everybody takes for granted: they live on the road, play pretty much every major festival and have earned themselves a rep as one of the most reliably entertaining psychedelic acts out there. They take reggae to the next level: maybe more than any other modern reggae band, they’ve been responsible for pushing its evolution while keeping the spirit of the classic 70s Jamaican sound alive. Anyone who doesn’t know them should go to the band’s site and grab the two albums – including a delicious live collection assembled from last year’s tour – plus the assorted tracks that they’re giving away for free.

They wound their way into the set casually and methodically, Nate Edgar’s catchy basslines anchoring the bounce as drummer Tommy Bennedetti artfully worked the edges with some neat fills and cymbal hits. This band has always had a feel for dub, but they’ve bred it to a sticky purity. They don’t overdo it, breaking the songs down to a vortex of space echo for maybe a chorus at a time, not much more, before circling back to an earthy groove. One of the band’s trademarks has always been to have all kinds of fun with keyboard effects: switching effortlessly through every wah setting and woozy patch within reach, keyboardist JP Petronzio was obviously entertaining himself as much as he was the crowd. A recent track, So Aware blended Ethiopian influences with a couple of neat dub interludes, as did another one, basically a one-chord jam that pulsed along on a catchy, circling hook as the guitar and keys intertwined until any attempt to figure out who was playing what was a waste of time. It was more fun just to stand and sway as the waves of sound kept coming. A fierier, minor-key track, The Gold took a swipe at the current system, offering hope for a different, less money-oriented culture. Resonant and resolute in front of the band, singer Elliott Martin had the waves of bodies swaying along with him through the majestic, more traditional echoes of Speak of the Devil. A long instrumental section followed in the same vein, with another dub interlude, a sweet organ solo and a trick ending. The set wound up with the catchy, upbeat The Grass; the towering epic Blazing Love, trumpeter Sam Dechenne at one point playing what could have been the most interesting one-note solo ever done, blipping and blasting his way into and then out of the murky sonic kaleidoscope; and Zion Triad, a suite that took it up into the rafters much like how Burning Spear would close his shows back in the 80s.

If JBB represents everything that’s good about current-day reggae, the Easy Star All-Stars are the funniest reggae band alive. The crowd that stayed for them had really come out to make it the 4/20-est night of the year, and when the band launched into Pink Floyd’s Breathe (from the band’s first adventure in classic covers, Dub Side of the Moon), they went nuts. After about a minute of oscillating On the Run synth, when Jenny Hill substituted a bubbly jazz flute interlude for one of David Gilmour’s anguished guitar solos, it was impossible not to laugh. Which is why it’s so mystifying that this band’s devious, far-reaching sense of humor is so absent from their original stuff. They opened with a number possibly titled Don’t Give up the Music, a dead ringer for Gregory Isaacs’ Soon Come, delivered fervently by an animated, dancehall-style frontman. The reggae-pop they did afterward was competent, their bassist singing one number while firing off one tricky hook after another, but it never resonated more than it did when they finally did Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band and then an irresistible singalong of A Little Help from My Friends, everybody’s glowing coals raised high in the air. Their Radiodread stuff is arguably even more imaginative and lots of fun – and for obvious reasons doesn’t sound much like the originals. But when they brought up some guy from a reality tv show to embarrass himself in front of the band, it was time to call it a night and head to the train.

And a big shout out to Winston who was playing the subway platform in the wee hours at 14th Street. This was a late one for the veteran West Indian busker with the battered keyboard and the sweet soul voice. He’s at least fifty, possibly a lot older but he’s still here entertaining tired travelers more nights than not. He might have been the best singer of the whole night. He’s sort of a live, one-man Gil Bailey Show: mention a classic rocksteady or reggae tune from the 60s or 70s and he probably knows it. He doesn’t have a website but you can take a flyer with his number on it when you throw something in his tip bucket.

April 24, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, reggae music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 4/21/11

If you think we’ve slacked off here this week, the reality is just the opposite. We’ve just been going out every night. Coming up: great shows from Caithlin De Marrais, Randi Russo, the Oxygen Ponies, Ward White, John Kelly, John Brown’s Body and the Easy Star All-Stars. Is that eclectic or what? In the meantime, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #649:

Serge Gainsbourg – Aux Armes Etcaetera

We probably should have picked this one for 4/20. It’s a counterintuitive one: the poete maudit of French hippie rock rapping in his Gauloise rasp over a deadpan groove supplied by Bob Marley’s band circa 1979. The lyrics only make sense if you understand uncouth 70s French slang, but the imperturbable bounce of the band is irresistible. The famous one here is the title cut, Gainsbourg doing the Marseillaise in a faux dancehall style. Lola Rastaquouere is a French pun (“rastaquouere” ironically means “vagabond,” with an immigrant connotation); Relax Baby Be Cool is fake R&B done almost ska style. Hostility gets out of hand with Brigade Des Stups, the bitter account of a stoner harrassed by the cops, as well as on Des Laids Des Laids (Ugly, Ugly) and Vieille Canaille (Old Bitch). Les Locataires (The Tenants) and Pas Long Feu (Real Soon) are more subtle. The cd reissue comes with an additional disc of outtakes and dub versions: all together, a twisted, weird idea that worked out better than anyone probably could have imagined. Here’s a random torrent.

April 21, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, reggae music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 4/12/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #658:

The Congos – Heart of the Congos

Considered to be dub producer genius Lee “Scratch” Perry’s finest hour, this 1977 roots reggae classic was reissued as a double cd in 1993 along with a handful of rare, consistently excellent, absolutely psychedelic dub versions of original album tracks. The harmony trio’s lead singer Cedric Myton’s falsetto soars over the oldschool backing unit, including Boris Gardiner on bass and Ernie Ranglin on guitar, as Perry moves one instrument and then another through the mix, twisting and turning them inside out, sometimes breaking it down to just the drums or the bass, everything drenched in reverb. The songs run the gamut: from the remake of the old mento song Fisherman (complete with a basso profundo shout-out to a local herb dealer); the hypnotic chant Congoman; the gospel-influenced Open Up the Gate, Sodom and Gomorrow and Can’t Come In; the sufferahs’ anthems La La Bam Bam (Jamaican patwa for “clusterfuck”) and Children Crying; and the Rasta anthems Ark of the Covenant, Solid Foundation and At the Feast. Here’s a random torrent.

April 11, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, reggae music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gowanus Reggae and Ska Society Burn One in Soho

If you might be wondering why a band would call themselves the Gowanus Reggae and Ska Society, just spell out their initials. Yeah mon – for one reason or another, they played the cd release show for their new one, G.R.A.S.S. on Fire, at the Apple store in Soho. It’s hard to think of a more unlikely venue, and the fact that the store went for the idea turned out to be pure stoner genius. The sound in the little upstairs auditorium was great and so was the band.

The new album is instrumental versions of the songs on the Wailers’ famous Catch a Fire album. G.R.A.S.S. put their own original spin on them. More unpredictable and adventurous than Dub Is a Weapon, more straight-ahead than Giant Panda, less jazzy than Monty Alexander, the hourlong show saw them sticking pretty much to the verses and choruses of the originals while adding their own solos and some extended psychedelic jamming that was tasty to the extreme. Their sound is strictly oldschool, anchored by a onetime Jack Grace Band rhythm section, J. Granelli on bass and Russ Meissner (who’s still in that band) on drums. Granelli spent most of his time hanging just behind the beat like Family Man Barrett would do in Marley’s band, while Meissner kept things simple and smart, on one occasion hitting a pedal for some echoey dubwise riddims. Keyboardist Nate Shaw spun between effects, from high, oscillating Dr. Dre drones to lush organ chords, while his counterpart across the stage, Nick Balaban, worked edgy blues piano, murky clavinova basslines and some scary, tinny synth leads into a neat tradeoff with Shaw on a long, extended version of 400 Years.

After a long, suspenseful, sustained guitar intro by David Bailis, Paul Carlon’s bright, melodic soprano sax lines lit up the opening tune, Concrete Jungle. Shaw’s melodica dodged the torrents from David Barnes’ harmonica on a long, crescendoing take of Baby We Got a Date; they turned Kinky Reggae and Midnight Ravers into a mini-suite with some sweet horn charts. They didn’t do much of any straight-up dub with the exception of a quiet, spacy interlude toward the end of Stir It Up (a smart move – take a pop song and make it totally psychedelic). They wound up the show with a long Stop That Train, a version of High Tide or Low Tide (a Wailers outtake which might have been the most truly gorgeous tune of the night) that stayed true to the original, right down to the plaintive turnaround at the end of the verse, and an epic 400 Years that Bailis used as a platform for a gently contemplative intro, ferocious raga lines in midstream and finally at the end, when the organ and horns were at full force, took it deep into the heart of metal like Burning Spear’s band would do 25 years ago. It was that good. The new album is streaming right now at the band’s site.

March 22, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, reggae music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 1/29/11

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues, in completely random order, all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #731:

Aswad – Live and Direct

Along with Steel Pulse, Aswad were one of the creme de la creme of the thriving British roots reggae scene in the late 70s/early 80s. Their studio albums through the mid-80s have a similarly complex, jazzy feel along with the requisite social consciousness; this scorching live set, recorded at London’s Notting Hill Carnival in 1983, captures the original band at the absolute top of their game. With the horn section, percussion, guitars and keys going full tilt, they run through the politically-fueled anthems – Not Guilty, Not Satisfied and the wickedly catchy African Children – alongside dancefloor vamps like Roots Rocking, Drum & Bass Line and a brief excursion into latin music with Soca Rumba. Likewise, their Rockers Medley mixes lush ballads – Ease Up and Your Love’s Got a Hold on Me – with the fiery Revolution and Waterpumping. They end it on a high note with Love Fire, stopping and restarting as the crowd screams. The band’s front line has remained the same over the years although the backing unit has turned over numerous times: after a predictable deviation into a more digital, formulaic style late in the 80s, they’ve recently revived their original roots sound with impressive results. Here’s a random torrent.

January 29, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, reggae music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 1/7/11

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues, all the way to #1. Friday’s is #753:

Alpha Blondy – Jah Victory

One of the best-known African roots reggae artists, Ivoirien singer Alpha Blondy has been putting out politically-charged albums for almost 30 years: this mostly French-language double cd from 2007 is the high point of his career. Fearless and resolute, over a heavily produced, keyboard-driven mix that reaches for an epic grandeur and usually nails it, he skewers repressive dictators, genocidal regimes and hypocrites everywhere, with songs like Ne Tirez Pas Sur l’Ambulance (Don’t Shoot at the Ambulance), Mister Grand Geule (Mr. Big Mouth), Le Bal Des Combattus (The Soldiers’ Ball), Les Salauds (Bastards) and Sales Racistes (Dirty Racists). Other tracks like Sankara and Cameroun incorporate current-day African pop influences; the cautionary tale Le Planete and La Route de la Paix (The Road to Peace) offer hope against hope. Yet the best song here might be the cover of the Pink Floyd classic Wish You Were Here, Blondy returning again and again to the refrain of “We’re just two lost souls in a fishbowl, year after year, running over the same old ground, how we found the same old fear,” building to a literally visceral intensity. If he never makes another album, he goes out on a high note with this one. Here’s a random torrent.

January 7, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, reggae music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 12/27/10

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues as it does every day, all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #764:

Culture – Two Sevens Clash

On a day like today, in the northeastern United States anyway, we need an album like this one, warm and summery. This one will help you pretend you’re in Jamaica instead of dis year Babylon, yeah mon! Ironically, this is a concept album about the apocalypse. 7/7/77 in Jamaica was a day of dread, especially for Rastas – a lot of people thought the day of judgment was at hand, and its anthem was this album’s blithely ominous title track. The rest of it is some of the best roots reggae ever recorded, frontman Joseph Hill’s defiant back-to-Africa and sufferah’s ballads pulsing along on the beat of Sly Dunbar’s drums and Robbie Shakespeare’s fat bass, with soaring harmonies, chirpy keyboards and pinging guitars: psychedelic pop, Jamdown style. The downbeat stuff – See Dem a Come, I’m Alone in the Wilderness and Pirate Days – is every bit as memorable and catchy as the triumphant songs: Get Ready to Ride the Lion to Zion, Black Starliner Must Come, Natty Dread Taking Over, Calling Rastafari and I’m Not Ashamed. Culture would continue to tour and record (although Hill’s first-rate songs suffered more and more from cheesy production as the years went on) until his death in 2006. His son Kenyatta Hill now leads a revamped version of the band. Here’s a random torrent.

December 27, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, reggae music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 12/6/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #785:

The Abyssinians – Satta Massagana

One of the deepest, darkest roots reggae albums you’ll ever hear, the oldest singles on this 1993 reissue date back to 1969. Best known for their hit Satta Massagana – the “national anthem of reggae,” a song whose producer failed to see its potential until it topped the Jamaican charts two years after it was recorded – Bernard Collins, Donald Manning and Lyndford Manning distinguished themselves with their eerie close harmonies and fondness for murky minor key grooves. They mix up the socially conscious anthems like Declaration of Rights, Black Man’s Strain and African Race with haunting, gospel-inflected numbers like Abednigo and The Good Lord along with ominous orthodox Rasta themes such as Forward Unto Zion, I and I, Peculiar Number and the organ-fueled Reason Time. The group called it quits in the late 70s, reuniting improbably twenty years later and proving they hadn’t lost a step; their 1999 comeback album suffers from overproduction but also has plenty of good songs. Here’s a random torrent.

December 6, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, reggae music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment