Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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

iLa Mawana: Soldiers of Jah Sound

On their new album Soldiers of Sound, Boston reggae band iLa Mawana offer a classic roots sound: no stiff computerized beats, no cheesy synthesizers, just a fat oldschool groove and one warm summery tune after another. The obvious comparison is John Brown’s Body although there’s definitely a Bob Marley influence there too. The band’s tight four-piece horn section sets them apart from most of the other roots acts out there. Singer Gianpaolo Blower is casual and laid-back and bass player Ryan Hinchey hangs behind the beat like Family Man Barrett of the Wailers while guitarist Dave Rosen sticks to rocksteady riddim and the occasional tingling Chinna Smith-style riff. Drummer Sammy Wags and organist Jason Moore keep it tight and terse as well. Lyrically, they keep it conscious, upbeat but socially aware. It grows on you slowly: by the time it’s over, it’s obvious that this is a stealth contender for one of the best albums of 2010.

The album opens with a big anthem, The Golden Age, spiced with wah guitar and a big horn chart after the first verse. The second track, Jigyo Keta is a catchy festival of good vibes: “Radiate it from your soul, lighting up hell’s dark sidewalk…imagine that.” The title track is a close cousin of the Marley classic Rastaman Vibration, with a long, balmy sax solo. The slinky workman’s anthem 40 Hours, an instant singalong, ought to energize crowds everywhere: “Give me back my 40, give me back my 40 hours!”

Mortal Motion is fast, almost a ska tune, taking a brooding look at mankind’s march to self-annihilation. The hypnotically pulsing Green Bridge, a standout track here, features an organ breakdown that leads the band up to a big soul-drenched ending. On the slow, Marley-ish Voodoo Spell, Rosen finally takes a guitar solo and makes all his notes count.

The fast, organ-driven Journeyman sounds a lot like a vintage John Brown’s Body song from 1996 or so, until it hits a big, tricky, jazzy outro. Grow My Way has an especially sweet bass groove and a hypnotic, echoey trumpet solo. The album winds up with a reggae-pop number followed by Tree Dub, a hint at how far outside they can take their songs in a live setting, and the defiant, slowly unwinding anthem I Define Me. They’re a killer live band (we enthusiastically reviewed one of their New York shows last May); they’re currently on tour, check their tourdates page. Click here to help them in their campaign to be High Times Magazine’s Band of the Month

July 8, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Shatter the Hotel – A Dub Inspired Tribute to Joe Strummer

If you’re a musician, you’ve got to be very careful if you want to cover an iconic band like the Clash. The obvious question is, why bother, since virtually all of the songs are impossible to improve on. Pretty much the only way to approach material like this is to either redo it with a completely different feel…or do it in a rub-a-dub style, mon. The new Shatter the Hotel compilation is yet further proof that just about everything sounds good if you play it as reggae. Yet it’s only logical that this album would happen eventually: the Clash were competent reggae musicians themselves, inspired equally by the music and the roots esthetic. This album is charity effort whose proceeds benefit Strummerville, set up by the Strummer estate to benefit young musicians. It’s an intoxicatingly psychedelic, smartly original dubwise collection of reinterpretations of a whole bunch of classics – Clash fans will love most of this, as will fans of oldschool conscious reggae as well.

The single most imaginative cut here is Infantry Rockers’ transformation of Rebel Waltz, a head-spinning, surf-inflected mix that takes the song straight 4/4 – in its own way, it’s as good as the original. Dubmatix‘ version of London Calling, which kicks it off, features both longtime Clash collaborator/dj Don Letts along with Dan Donovan. It’s more of a reggae-rock effort that sticks pretty close to the source except for a little toasting after the second verse (best not to try to upstage Joe Strummer when it comes to lyrics). Dub Antenna take White Riot and completely flip it, turning it into a slow groove (where you can actually understand the lyrics, which are great!). By contrast, Creation Rockers keep it short and sweet with Four Horsemen, clocking in at just under three minutes, although they take Complete Control in a completely opposite direction with equally successful  results. Nate Wize mixes equal parts electro and vintage dub on Rock the Casbah and vastly improves it – when’s the last time you heard a Clash cover that’s actually better than the original? John Brown’s Body prove themselves to be the perfect band to cover Bankrobber, adding their trademark, slippery keyboards-and-horns sound.

The deepest, bassiest dub here is Wrongtom Meets Rockers’ hydroponic instrumental of Lost in the Supermarket. DubCats do Rudie Can’t Fail in a modern, techie Jamdown pop style, while Citizen Sound’s take on One More Time starts out without adding anything til the dub effects start to kick in. O’Luge and Kornerstone’s straight-ahead roots treatment of Spanish Bombs reminds what a great song it is under any circumstance, and Danny Michel’s cover of Straight to Hell is a real eye-opener, accenting the tune’s underlying Celtic edge. The only real miss here is the cover of Know Your Rights which adds nothing to the original, which was nothing special anyway – the Clash were running on fumes by that point.

February 8, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Concert Review from the Archives: Culture at Irving Plaza, NYC 6/13/98

The redesign of the venue detracts from its previously scrungy charm: the Nazi behind the bar wouldn’t sell any $7 Rolling Rocks to anyone without ID, a somewhat nasty discovery for audience members with cottonmouth. From the pungent scent of ganja wafting throughout the club, there were more than a few. Arrived in time to catch Ithaca roots reggae act John Brown’s Body deliver an excellent, hypnotic, horn-driven closing tune: must check this band out at some point. This edition of Culture has reliably impassioned lead singer Joseph Hill backed by just a lone harmony singer now, in addition to two keyboardists (one with some shockingly authentic-sounding horn patches), guitarist and rhythm section. Only one guitar solo all night long, during I’m Not Ashamed, which was far superior to the metal stuff their previous axeman used to play on this song. They did lots of old stuff: Chiney Man, Get Ready to Ride the Lion to Zion, an abbreviated version of the classic, apocalyptic Two Sevens Clash (just the first two verses and choruses), Be Honest With Yourself, Addis Abbaba and International Herb with a short chant/refrain of “legalize it” at the end. They didn’t do Riverside, strange since the video is a big Rockers TV hit. Give thanks and praise to H.I.M. Haile I Selassie I for jah music.

[postscript: Joseph Hill collapsed and died shortly after finishing a show in Germany in 2006. The remaining members finished the tour with Hill’s son Kenyatta on lead vocals, subsequently disbanded and then reunited for a 2009 tour. John Brown’s Body continue to carry the torch of classic roots reggae with a hypnotic brilliance matched by few bands alive today]

June 13, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, reggae music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Last Time I Went to the Pot Parade

It was mid-May, 1999, unseasonably cool for the global warming era. The plant kingdom was in full sprout. My girlfriend and I wandered down Broadway toward Battery Park. As we reached the park, there was no indication that there would be any greater quantity of illegal drugs there than on any other day, or that anyone would be ostentatiously indulging in them.

I was sober.

We were going to see a free show by John Brown’s Body, the best white reggae band ever. I say that jokingly because they’re also one of the best reggae bands ever, irrespective of anything that pigmentation might imply. That they’re worth seeing while sober attests to how good a live band they are: you can be completely free of any pot-induced bullshit and still enjoy them because they’re not any more self-indulgent, repetitive or clichéd than, say, Bob Marley.

As we approached the stage (this was in the days when you could do that, before the Park Pigs began setting up a labyrinth of barriers worthy of the king of Minos), we could smell what people were there for. There were lots of cops, but not in anything approximating the kind of numbers you see today when they do dry runs for a post-9/11 catastrophe, massed with sirens and lights under the Williamsburg Bridge.

I approached one of them and struck up a conversation. He wasn’t stoned as far as I could tell and seemed pretty blasé about the whole thing. “What’s it like, working this thing?” I asked him. He laughed. “It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.”

Eventually a small handful of the more obvious pothead kids were led away in handcuffs. Yet for the most part, the cops kept a respective distance and the revelers did the same. John Brown’s Body did a very short set, about 25 minutes. Then some guy from a popular Wetlands band – I forget the name – got up and launched into a pretty bad Shabba Ranks impression. So we wandered back in the direction we had come. It was a pleasantly mellow, predictably amusing afternoon and although it was only eight years ago, it feels like a lifetime.

As cruel an irony as this is, if you go to the parade this year, don’t bring pot.

May 2, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, New York City, Rant | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment