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(Above: “We and Dem” was one of several new cuts the Original Wailers performed in Kansas City.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

New material can be problematic for established acts. At a Kemper Arena concert several years ago, Elton John apologized for playing new songs and promised the he’d get to the hits as quickly as possible.
The Original Wailers took the opposite track Friday at the Voodoo Lounge, making several tracks from their upcoming album the centerpiece of the show. The gamble paid off.

Bob Marley casts a long shadow over all reggae acts, but the Original Wailers are especially stricken: Their two guitarists, J unior Marvin and Al Anderson, played with Marley on some of his greatest albums, including “Exodus” and “Uprising.”

The seven-piece band didn’t overlook those moments, but it was clear they want to be remembered as something more as well. After introducing themselves with a trio of Marley numbers, they dove into several songs from the as-yet unreleased album “Justice.”
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Even though the crowd couldn’t sing along, they didn’t seem to mind. Part of this had to do with band’s enthusiasm for the numbers. It was evident they were happy to be playing their new creations, and as a result the performances bounced a little bit higher. The other reason is that the songs maintained several of Marley’s hallmarks, like socially conscious, yet upbeat lyrics underlined by gospel organ lines and subtly textured guitar parts.

“Blackbird Fly” was dedicated to the late Joseph Hill from Culture and floated as effortlessly as its title implied. “Backslider” was a song about hypocrites in the vein of “Who the Cap Fit,” and “We and Dem” featured a nifty dub bass-and-drum breakdown.

After several new songs, Anderson declared the band would take a request. There were shouts for “I Shot the Sheriff” and “No Woman No Cry.” Both were good suggestions; neither was played. Instead, the band played another new number, “What’s Love Supposed To Do.” It might have been a cruel trick, but the poppy number kept everyone dancing happily.

Marvin and keyboard player Desi Hyson shared vocal duties. The pair were as much educators as entertainers, pausing between tracks to frame each song. The song “Justice” was prefaced by a quote from founding Wailer Peter Tosh, which drew a big cheer.

The band didn’t deliver a big Marley hit until nearly halfway through the two-hour show. The Voodoo Lounge wasn’t close to full, but just about everyone in the place ran onto the dance floor during the opening chords of “Three Little Birds.” A more obscure cut “Heathen,” also from the “Exodus” album, kept the floor crowded thanks to Anderson and Marvin’s extended solos. A master of feel, Anderson added touches of Latin, psychedelica, blues and even metal into the songs.

After introducing “Jammin’” the crowd didn’t need an incentive to stick around, but Marvin gave them one anyway, leading them through dance steps, hand claps and a call and response. Anderson added a weird, dissonant blues riff to the mix that didn’t seem to fit but somehow worked. As the band worked the groove, backing vocalist Erica Newell, spurred on by fans near the stage, unleashed her funkiest dance moves of the night.

Wailers2After a brief break, Anderson resumed the stage alone, playing a guitar solo that recalled Jimmy Page’s “White Summer/Black Mountainside.” Eventually joined by drummer Paapa Nyarkoh, the rest of the band fell in as he slid into the familiar intro to “Redemption Song.” The performance had a hymn-like solemnity until Marvin kicked it into doubletime, reworking the last verse into a ska number.

The night ended with a 15-minute romp through “Exodus” that wouldn’t quit. After jamming through all the verses, Nyarkoh took a drum solo that didn’t slow the dancing by a single step. Marvin eventually regained the stage, but the band wouldn’t stop, working the groove tighter and tighter as Anderson took a long solo. At this point there were two options: continue playing the number for the rest of the night, which no one on stage or in the crowd seemed to mind, or break it off immediately. Realizing the band had an upcoming gig and the audience may have weekend plans, Anderson chose the latter. If he hadn’t we might all still be dancing.

Setlist: Natty Dread, Rastaman Vibration, Forever Loving Jah, Solution, We Are the Children, Backslider, Justice, Pimper’s Paradise, We and Dem, Blackbird Fly, Three Little Birds, Heathen, What Love’s Supposed To Do, Jammin’. Encore: Al Anderson guitar solo > Redemption Song, Exodus/drum solo.

Keep reading:

Original Wailers keep promise to Bob Marley

Review: Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers

Review: Sly and Robbie

Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry

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(Above: Sly and Robbie drop heavy riddim at Red Rocks in 2008.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

If Robbie Shakespeare’s job as a musician fizzles, he could probably make a living bringing down buildings. Alongside rhythm partner Sly Dunbar, Shakespeare’s bass rattled the foundations of the Folly Theater for nearly two hours Saturday night.

Backed by the four-piece Taxi Gang, Sly and Robbie delivered their signature reggae sound, which has appeared on literally tens of thousands of records, encompassing everyone from Bob Dylan to Peter Tosh.

The night started with an instrumental that exceeded 20 minutes in which the musicians passed solos like a jazz combo. As the trombone and saxophone bridged the gap between Afro-beat and ska, the keyboards and guitar subliminally sparkled underneath. When the guitarist popped to the forefront he delivered solos that recalled Carlos Santana, displayed Eddie Van Halen’s two-finger tapping and went Jacques Cousteau on his wah peddle for a solo that sounded like it was played underwater.

Though they politely shared the spotlight, Sly and Robbie were never far from the forefront. Robbie’s bass was so loud it drowned out most of the vocals and probably registered on the Richter scale. Sly’s drums sat neatly on top, crisp, precise and articulate. Their playing wasn’t flashy, but their grooves spoke volumes.

The Folly was half-full at best, but the band worked the room like it was packed. Putting down his horn, the trombone player paced the stage leading the crowd in call and response. He delivered a great cover of LeRoy Smart’s “Ballistic Affair,” which featured Sly and Robbie on the original 1976 recording, and drew the biggest applause of the night with a reading of Bob Marley’s “Rastaman Chant.” The sextet slowed that number ever so slightly, accentuating the song’s gospel elements.

Though their playing was engaging, the music did get a little samey after about an hour. The echo-laden drums and behind-the-beat accompaniment typical of deep dub only hold so much room for exploration. Fortunately, a surprise appearance from singer Peter Gayle rescued the set.

Acting as if there were a secret ordinance against standing still, Gayle was constantly kicking his feet along with the beat, twirling his long dreadlocks or suggestively swinging his hips. His G-rated cover of Webbie’s “I Miss You” excited the crowd and the energy stayed high after he was gone.

The concert was part of the “Cypress Avenue Live at the Folly” series, and came just one night after the ensemble’s performance at the Wakarusa Music Festival in its new home at Ozark, Ark.

The band opened their encore set with a cover of Tex Ritter’s Oscar winning ““High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me).” Robbie said this was their first time performing the number and the arrangement was little more than his vocals and Sly pounding out the Bo Diddley beat on his bass drum. They closed with “Welcome to Jamrock,” which after several minutes somehow morphed into a gentle jazz saxophone solo. After saying good night, half the ensemble left the stage. Seemingly oblivious, the saxophone and keyboard players and guitarist played on, lost in the rhythm.

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By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Guitarist Derek Trucks was 12 years old when Bob Dylan asked him onstage during a show to play “Highway 61 Revisited.”

For Trucks, it was just another gig. The look on his dad’s face, however, told a different story.

“I knew who Dylan was because my dad was a massive fan, but it didn’t hit me then like it would have now or even 10 years ago,” Trucks said. “But even though I didn’t realize the significance, I could see it in my dad’s eyes that this was life-changing.”

Trucks and his father were both right. Playing with Dylan was just another encounter for the prodigy who would go on to play with Buddy Guy, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and numerous others. But it also opened the door to other possibilities.

Trucks, who turns 30 in June, now helms his own eponymous group (performing Friday at Harrah’s Voodoo Lounge) and also plays in the Allman Brothers Band. He returned Dylan’s favor with his supercharged blues cover of Dylan’s “Down in the Flood,” which opens his sixth and newest studio album, “Already Free.”

“I try to pick covers with some connection to the band,” Trucks said. “Part of that is Dylan is such a good songwriter with a great amount of tunes, but on top of that I figured after Katrina and the flooding in Iowa, the title and the lyrics were just a great metaphor for all that.”

Trucks didn’t go into the studio planning on cutting a record. Finding himself with downtime at his Jacksonville, Fla., home – atypical for a man who averages 300 shows a year – and a recently completed home studio called Swamp Raga Studio, Trucks and his band decided to lay down some tracks just to see how the room felt.

“The first day we wrote and ” Trucks said. “The next thing we recorded (the song) ‘Already Free,’ knew there were a dozen, then two dozen songs. We started calling people from (wife and blues guitarist) Susan (Tedeschi)’s band, Doyle (Bramhall II), Warren Haynes, Oteil Burbridge, to come in.”

The resulting release has a laid-back yet focused organic vibe that inhabits the best of the Allman Brothers’ Capricorn albums.

“It’s the most natural record I’ve done,” Trucks said. “It was very comfortable recording, and I think you can feel it. We captured tunes hours after they were written. There’s a freshness that comes across when songs are captured so quickly.”

Unsurprisingly, Trucks wanted to translate that urgency to the road as quickly as possible. The Derek Trucks Band tour kicked off last week.

For someone who has seemingly played with everyone, Trucks had the opportunity to encounter another legend and influence last year.

When you record two John Coltrane numbers on your debut album, and the opportunity to play with Coltrane’s longtime pianist McCoy Tyner arises, you don’t say no.

Still, Trucks was intimidated. Especially when he walked into the studio and saw bass player Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

“Those guys are legends in their own right, but McCoy is on his own level,” Trucks said. “He was such a sweet guy. He really made it feel comfortable.”

Trucks entered the studio with a list of four songs he hoped to play with the trio, but as the last guitarist on the session, some of his choices had already been recorded.

“My first choice of song was ‘Contemplations,’ but (jazz guitarist Bill) Frisell had already recorded it,” Trucks said.

The two-day session yielded collaborations with Trucks, Frisell, Bela Fleck, Marc Ribot and John Scofield. Trucks was the only “rock” guitarist invited, but he works well on his two featured cuts, “Slapback Blues” and “Greensleeves.” Trucks’ presence in the company of such eclectic legends is unsurprising given the range of covers his band performs – everything from Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Delta bluesman Son House – and the diversity of the band playing them, which contains a four-decade age span.

Trucks said his innate musical curiosity has not only expanded his palate but has also given him a level of comfort playing with nearly anyone.

“It started at such a young age. I was always around musicians, so I’d try to pick their brains and see what influenced their music,” Trucks said. “A huge part of being able to stay on the road and on top of the game is to keep finding inspiration. You keep finding different things that turn you on, things that tweak different parts of the brain. In the long run you’re a better musician for it.”

Trucks hopes that same level of comfort and curiosity extends to his home Swamp Raga Studio.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with Willie (Nelson) in Maui, and anywhere he is has a clubhouse vibe. I can see that communal feeling. Wherever you are with him – on his bus, in his home – he makes sure everybody is absolutely comfortable,” Trucks said. “That’s kind of what it’s (Swamp Raga) starting to turn into in the month and a half we’ve gotten into it.”

Swamp Raga is not only musician-friendly but environmentally friendly as well.

“The beauty of building from scratch is that you can think about stuff ahead of time,” Trucks said. “When I figured the electric bill would be double, not only was that a financial hit, but psychologically I started feeling guilty because of all the energy we’d be using. We went out of our way to be conscious of that. We made it a point to do everything as efficiently as possible.”

To that end, Trucks and Tedeschi installed 26 solar panels on the studio and their home. And in the months when the family is out on tour, the local utility company pays them for the energy their panels generate.

“Sometimes our bill comes in right around zero,” Trucks said. “By doing the right thing it actually works out better in the end.”

Despite such 21st century enterprises, Trucks believes his band and his music are a throwback to a time where wooden instruments were hand-crafted and stepping onstage meant being ready to cut some heads.

“When you get on stage, you have to bring it,” Trucks said. “I get a sense from new music that the idea is to outsmart your audience or be so ultra-hip you can pull one over on them.

“With a band like ours, we try to represent a more honest music. We’re musicians representing our craft first and then trying to connect with people.”

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