Fans of roots reggae might have wondered what happened to I-Wayne, who burst on the scene back in 2005 with the hit Can’t Satisfy Her, from his album Lava Ground. He hasn’t been idle. At a revealing private performance for media late last month, he revealed that one way he gets inspiration for songs is to take a walk on Port Henderson Hill in his native Portmore, Jamaica, an area packed with history: the eras of Sir Francis Drake, the holocaust of the slave trade, the struggle for Jamaican independence and then of the Rastas have been interwoven over the centuries there. It’s fertile territory for deep thinking, which is what I-Wayne offers on his long-awaited new album Life Teachings. This guy is a serious artist – relevant without being preachy, romantic without being saccharine, he combines the confrontational, politically-charged fire of, say, an Anthony B with the easygoing spirituality and charm of Luciano. If those artists go back a few years, so does the vibe on the album: it’s real roots reggae, with a band, and real bass and drums, recorded in the same clean, efficient style as a Dr. Dread production from around the turn of the century. It’s out now on VP, the folks behind the Strictly the Best compilations for what seems about a century.
At the concert, a popular New York reggae dj marveled at how she thought that the first track, Burn Down Soddom (an original) meant that the album was going to be “all Rasta”- but then she was completely taken in by the ballads, “something nice and romantic, that a guy can sing to his girl,” she explained. No doubt she also liked I-Wayne’s soaring falsetto – he goes way, way up, further than Dennis Brown sometimes, into Al Green or Philip Bailey territory. As much as those songs, like Real and Clean – a plea to keep things down-to-earth – or Empress Divine, or Pure As the Nile work a catchy boudoir angle, the real gems here are the more in-your-face tracks.
It takes awhile for these to make an appearance here. Burn Down Soddom has to be the most laid-back incitation to arson ever recorded, with a woozy, lengthy dub passage. Herb Fi Legalize is the obligatory weed smoker’s anthem, a peaceful tribute to the healing herb that contrasts with The Fire Song, a no-nonsense, straightforward dancehall duet with Assasin to “get rid of dem thoroughly, burn burn dem no apology.” But Drugs and Rum Vibes is a surprisingly plaintive stoners-vs.-drunks narrative, cynically referencing the the CIA’s role in the illegal drug trade while alcohol-fueled violence kills thousands more.
Wise and Fearless is a message to the youth to understand how a cycle of violence can keep an evil, illegitimatepower structure in place. After all, di wicked aren’t about to Change Them Ways, as I-Wayne makes clear on the next track, an unselfconsciously gorgeous tune that contrasts with its grim lyrics. The title track is a casually amusing polemic in support of a vegan lifestyle (with plenty of ganja). The album ends on a surprisingly brooding but potent note with Do the Good, a seize-the-day meditation since there may be no tomorrow, and “plastic man dem fake like dem love ya…but dem blood ya.”
As we do pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album was #469:
Tommy McCook & the Supersonics – Pleasure Dub
After Skatalites trombonist Don Drummond murdered his girlfriend, tenor sax player McCook broke up the band and went to work playing his soulful, spacious style on innumerable late 60s rocksteady hits for Jamaican producer Duke Reid. This 2009 compilation collects mostly instrumental versions of a whole bunch of them, sans the sometimes cloying lyrics or vocals. As dub, it’s pretty primitive: as grooves, most of this is unsurpassed. The chirpy organ behind John Holt comes front and center on Tracking Dub; another John Holt cut, Love Dub is much the same. There’s the surprisingly lush Dub with Strings; Prince Francis’ Side Walk Doctor; the punchy Ride De Dub; the big hit Bond Street Rock; the cinematic 7-11; and the scurrying Twilight Rock and Many Questions among the 18 slinky one-drop vamps here. Here’s a random torrent via Sixties Fever.
The Rudie Crew are best known as a great live band. Their latest album This Is Skragga – streaming in its entirety at bandcamp – proves they can capture the crazy enegy of their live shows in the studio. If this is actually a live recording, except without the crowd noise, that wouldn’t be a surprise. With guitars, keys, horns and what seems like an endless supply of toasters on the mic, they blend a 60s and 70s roots groove with a 90s dancehall vocal style. Imagine Super Cat backed by Toots’ band, and you get an idea of what all this sounds like.
The opening track, Propaganda benefits from fat, oldschool production, with boomy bass, spicy horns, a guitar solo that starts out hilarious and goes creepy quickly, followed by a smoky off-kilter sax solo. In matter-of-fact Jamaican patwa, the singer warns of the nefarious misdees of the CIA and the FBI in the service of corporate interests, something that ought to be getting everybody’s attention: “Come off your myspace and facebook and ask why!”
The second track, Dem Neva Know is a straight-up, vintage roots reggae sufferah’s anthem, like something off Black Uhuru’s first album but more raw. They follow that with the title track, a punchy ska shuffle with blippy bassline, slinky organ and the horns kicking up a mess when they need to. After what sounds like a succession of vocal cameos, they hit a wicked downward hook that just won’t stop. The last song is Party Girl – she’s she’s impossible to catch up with, and too rich for your blood. The band eventually works its way into a murky boudoir scene done dancehall style. The whole thing is streaming at bandcamp – enjoy.
Playing a little catchup today as we assemble a brand-new live music calendar for NYC – for our sister site, New York Music Daily. For those of you who’ve been following this list from the beginning, not to worry, we’ll get back on track, we did before and we’ll do it again. In the meantime, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album was #518:
King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown
Not bad for a bunch of cover versions that were all initially released as b-sides. Along with Lee “Scratch” Perry, the late King Tubby is considered to be one of the inventors and early giants of dub reggae, and this is his high-water mark. As you would expect with a hit album from Jamaica, 1976, versions exist which are credited to King Tubby himself (who engineered it), others to the other groove genius behind this, producer/melodica player Augustus Pablo. Either way, it’s a woozy, intoxicating ride, guitar, horn flourishes and all those echoey drum bits fading up and then out of the picture. Many of these songs rework hits by Jacob Miller, including the title track, Stop Them Jah, and Each One Dub, while Frozen Dub reinvents an old Heptones hit. There’s also Keep on Dubbing; Young Generation Dub; 555 Dub Street; Brace’s Tower Dub (part one and part two); Corner Crew Dub; Skanking Dub and Satta Dub. The late 80s reissue comes with four bonus tracks, included here in this random torrent via It’s Coming Out of Your Speaker.
See-I is the roots reggae project of two musicians, Arthur and Archie Steele (who go by Rootz and Zeebo, respectively), masterminds of a Washington, DC reggae scene. On their debut album, they’re joined by a diverse cast of musicians from Chuck Brown’s band along with others who’ve toured with them backing Thievery Corporation. Their debut release is a clever, entertaining party mix, a smooth digital production that blends an early 90s Jamaican feel (boomy bass and synthesized brass) with neoretro psychedelic elements: wah-wah, vintage organ patches and every noodly keyboard texture available. Which comes as no surprise, considering that Rob Myers of hilariously entertaining psychedelic chillout instrumentalists Thunderball is involved with the production.
The slinky, midtempo opening cut Dangerous sets the stage for what’s to come, with plenty of dub tinges. They follow that with Haterz 24/7, vintage Buju Banton-style dancehall patois over a fluid roots groove. Dub Revolution is driven by a catchy minor-key bass hook as squiggly synth and creepy, upper register electric piano textures filter in and out of the mix. They segue out of it into Soul Hit Man, transforming the groove into a jaunty bounce with a retro 70s soul vibe. Talking About the Peace shifts back to an oldschool 90s dancehall flavor, while Homegrown 2011 is funk/reggae with some unexpected bluesmetal guitar. Blow Up is the most hypnotic, dubwise track here, with some creepily bizarre electric sitar.
The most upbeat cut here, How We Do, features a ton of wah textures beneath the deadpan dancehall chatter. It deserves its own dub version – and it segues into one, yeah mon! Soul Universe is a sleepy stoner soul vamp with a George Clinton-esque rap; they close the album with a couple of woozy trip-hop vamps and what seems like an obligatory nod to hip-hop. To fully appreciate this album, something better than an ipod is required, preferably a system that can handle all the bass here. Mi a seh it a good ting!
Year after year, the Mafrika Festival just gets better and better. The annual daylong, outdoor world music concert takes place at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. Today’s surprisingly oldschool weather (low heat and humidity – who would have thought?) made it even easier to stick around for a bunch of excellent, eclectic bands.
The first real band to take the stage after one in the afternoon was Super Hi-Fi, led by Aphrodesia bassist Ezra Gale. With two trombones, guitar, bass and drums, they moved from edgy, minor-key roots reggae to hypnotic, rhythmically tricky Afrobeat to a little straight-up rock and then back again. The early part of the set was the reggae section, the trombones creating a terse, incisive live dub ambience, guitar going off on a surprising noiserock tangent in places. Later on they picked up the pace: one of the later songs went deep into jazzy territory as the trombones diverged, shadowed each other just a fraction of a beat apart and finally converged as they pulled it back into a reggae groove. Then they did a bouncy tribute to minivans, the most popular way to get around in West Africa.
Three-piece punk band the Band Droidz followed: “Harlem born and raised,” the frontman/guitarist proudly told the rapidly expanding crowd. They were excellent. The early part of the set was straight-up, catchy punk rock, the guitarist’s soulful voice too low in the mix for the lyrics to cut through: a band whose tunes and playing are this smart usually has good lyrics, and it was obvious from their interaction with the audience that they’re on the conscious tip. They proved just as good at roots reggae as they are at punk, then midway through the set, they went for more of an indie metal feel. One of the songs sounding like an update on 19th Nervous Breakdown; another used a tune much like the Velvets’ Lady Godiva’s Operation as the launching pad for a long, psychedelic, bone-bleaching guitar solo. The Band Droidz are at SOB’s on the 12th at around 9, and then playing a free in-studio show at Ultrasound, 251 W 30th St. on the 7th floor on 7/16 at 9.
Ivoirien roots reggae star Sekouba a.k.a. Sekouba Diakite and his eleven-piece backing band were next, and were the biggest crowd-pleasers of the afternoon. Delivering his songs in his native land’s dialects, he and the band – two guitars, two percussionists, keyboards, bass, drums and backup singers – stretched the songs out into epics, with frequent hypnotic percussion breaks. He’s a charismatic performer with a genuine social awareness: he doesn’t just give lip service to issues like immigrant rights and world peace. Midway through the set, he did a couple of love songs, one with a catchy yet ornate Marleyesque vibe, another as a duet with one of the women singing harmonies. When the keyboards finally came up in the mix, the anthemic sweep of the songs really took off, as towering as anything Tiken Jah Fakoly or Alpha Blondy ever did.
Psychedelic funk/Afrobeat band the People’s Champs have an excellent new album out (recently reviewed here): onstage, they proved even more eclectic, switching from one groove to another throughout their long, slinky songs. With Super Hi-Fi’s brass section (one of the trombonists switching to trumpet) out in front of bass, drums and keys and their frontwoman’s gritty, edgy vocals, they started out with Afrobeat, then took it down with a mysterious, broodingly psychedelic mini-epic, then brought it back up again with a jaunty vintage 70s soul/funk feel. By now, the space in front of the stage had become a multigenerational dancefloor, a couple of little kids climbing up on the stage to show off their moves (something that would never be allowed at, say, Central Park Summerstage).
Next on the bill was kora (West African harp) virtuoso Yacouba Diabate. How well would his spikily hypnotic, methodically crescendoing one-chord vamps go over with this party crowd? Everybody listened. And as the songs went on, the volume picked up. Backed by bass, drums, djembe and a bongo player who added echoey machine-gun sonics, Diabate methodically brought the volume up and then dipped down again. The best song of the set, in fact one of the best of the afternoon, was a plaintive minor-key number with Middle Eastern allusions, the percussion backing away and letting Diabate’s haunting melodies ring out. By the time they’d finished, it was after five, and the sun had finally come out of hiding from behind the clouds. As tempting as the rest of the bill looked, this meant for us that it was time to grab some some spicy, homemade lamb stew from one of the vendors and then find out what kind of torture the subway had in store.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #638:
Linton Kwesi Johnson – More Time
Conventional wisdom is that the great Jamaican-British dub poet’s incendiary work from the late 70s and early 80s is his best. To be counterintuitive, we’re going with this 1998 album, whose subject matter has a more diverse, international focus than the community-based broadsides that springboarded his career fronting a band. With bass genius Dennis Bovell and the Dub Band behind him, Johnson stoically intones his way through a couple of of elegies – Reggae Fi Bernard, Reggae Fi May Ayim – and reflections on the impact of art on politics, with the tongue-in-cheek If I Was a Top Notch Poet and Poems of Shape and Motion. The aphoristically explosive title track ponders what society would be like if leisure and family time were accorded as much status as material possessions; the even more explosive License Fi Kill namechecks pretty much everybody in John Major’s cabinet as complicit in the murder of innocent black people in British police custody. The album wraps up with the eerily prophetic New World Order. Here’s a random torrent.
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.
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.