Social Distancing Spins – Day 39

By Joel Francis

Cabin fever has taken hold, but let’s not replace it with a real fever. Stay in and stay safe, my friends.

Bob Marley and the Wailers – Rastaman Vibration (1976) Bob Marley had a lot to prove with Rastaman Vibration as former Wailers Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer also released their solo debuts that year. But dissonance in the Wailers camp turned to delight for music fans, because all three albums are reggae classics. (We looked at Tosh’s Legalize It yesterday and will likely examine Wailers’ Blackheart Man tomorrow.) Of course, Marley was the biggest star at the time and as such Rastaman Vibration had the greatest resonance. The eighth Marley album, Rastaman Vibration has some of the reggae legend’s best political songs. “Johnny Was” strikes at the casual violence that allows stray bullets to kill innocent bystanders. “Rat Race” calls out a suspected attempted by the CIA to subvert Jamaican politics. The best of them all, though – and arguably Marley’s greatest political song ever – is “War.” As Marley recites Halie Selassie’s 1963 address to the United Nations general assembly the reggae groove behind him simmers, gradually adding backing vocalists and horns. Selassie’s words remain powerful today: “That until the basic human rights/are equally guaranteed to all/without regard to race/this a war.” The song took on added meaning when Sinead O’Connor performed an a cappella version on Saturday Night Live, then tore up a photo of the pope to priests abusing children.

Rastaman Vibration isn’t without light-hearted moments, but songs like “Cry to Me” and “Positive Vibration” are come up short when matched against Marley triumphs “No Woman No Cry” and “Three Little Birds.” The funniest moment in the album comes from the suggestion printed inside the faux burlap textured gatefold sleeve: “This album jacket is great for cleaning herb.”

Marilyn Maye – A Taste of “Sherry!” (1967) Marilyn Maye is a treasure. She started performing around Kansas in the 1930s as a child and had her own live radio show as a teenager. In 1966, Maye was nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy (Tom Jones won). Across her seven decade recording career, Maye has appeared on The Tonight Show more than any other singer. To be honest, Maye’s style of jazz/cabaret singing usually isn’t my cup of tea, but after watching her perform at a local jazz festival several years ago I was converted. Her magic and mastery onstage doesn’t completely translate to this album, one of her earliest, but it is a great reminder of an incredible talent from a bygone generation.

The Libertines – Up the Bracket (2002) One of the greatest British punk albums exploded into the garage rock revival populated by the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the White Stripes and a bunch of other decent bands we’ve all forgotten about. The Libertines stood out in this landscape populated by loud guitars and snotty attitudes by being a bit more in-your-face and noisy without being off-putting or obnoxious (well, OK, they could be obnoxious). Blessed with cover artwork that recalled The Clash’s “White Riot,” they did one better and got Clash guitarist Mick Jones to produce the album as well. The result is an aggressive, tuneful romp with catchy songs that manages to live up to its title, British slang for a punch in the throat.

Prince – Dirty Mind (1980) Before “Little Red Corvette” and “Let’s Go Crazy” made him a superstar, Prince was a just hard-working funk prodigy hailing from the Upper Midwest (or nowhere, by the standards of the suits on the coasts). After proving that he could handle all the instruments himself on his debut, For You, Prince was hungry for even more control and commercial success on his second, self-titled release. He achieved both goals. Dirty Mind invested all the victories from the first two albums and emerged as the first album Prince recorded in his native Minneapolis with the local musicians previously in his touring band.

Dirty Mind contains all of Prince’s calling cards: carefree pop – “Uptown,” “When You Were Mind” – sexual controversy – “Sister,” “Head” – and a mélange of genres that roamed from new wave to soul and from rock to funk across little more than half an hour. Dirty Mind was the first classic album of Prince’s career and it remains a must-own record today.

John Legend and The Roots – Wake Up! (2010) When this album came out a decade ago, Barak Obama had been sworn in as the first black president in American history and the Tea Party were still calling themselves tea baggers and had yet to take power in the halls of congress. It is important to establish the political context into which Wake Up! was released, because this collaboration between John Legend and The Roots is a very political anthem. The best band in hip hop and the soul crooner selected 11 largely unknown soul protest songs and recast them for this new (Obama) era. As always, The Roots are impeccable and the carefully selected guests add gravitas with their performances. Legend is a capable singer but I can’t help wish that Raphael Saadiq or D’Angelo were helming the project instead. There are several times – particularly during the lengthy version of Bill Withers’ “I Can’t Write Left Handed” and “Hard Times” (a song Curtis Mayfield wrote for Baby Huey, who we discussed back on Day 31) – where Legend’s voice is too smooth and lacks the depth to bring the anger and desperation of the lyrics fully to life. But perfect should never be the enemy of good and Wake Up! is very good indeed. It is also sadly all too relevant.

Blakroc – self-titled (2009) The words “Black Keys” only appear once on this album, in small print inside the gatefold. That’s too bad, because fans of the blues-turned-arena band would probably find a lot to like here. True, Dan Auerbach cedes his vocals to a dozen or so MCs, but the musical guts of this record are the undeniable – and unmistakable – guitar and drums grooves that have powered the duo’s rock releases. The pair provide some very Wu Tang-inspired backing for the RZA and Pharoahe Monch on “Dollaz and Sense.” The collaborations with Diplomat Jim Jones are some of few times when the traditional Keys sensibilities cut through. Jones guests with Mos Def on “Ain’t Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo)” and appears with Nicole Wray and Billy Danze on “What You Do To Me.” Whether you are a hip hop head or rock fan, there is plenty of gold in Blakroc.

Review: The Wailers, Rusted Root

(Above: The Wailers perform Bob Marley’s eternal “Is This Love” at Glastonbury 2014.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Bob Marley has been dead for almost as long as he was alive, but his music isn’t going anywhere.

Several hundred fans flocked to the Uptown Theater on Friday night to hear the late reggae legend’s music performed by his former backing band, the Wailers. Although only one member of the current lineup performed and recorded with Marley, the band does an outstanding job of replicating Marley’s influential sound.

The arrangements stayed faithful to the recorded versions, making the rare moments when the band stretched out even more insightful. Guitarist Audley “Chizzy” Chisholm added a pair of inventive guitar solos to “Lively Up Yourself” and “Jamming.” Despite the band playing it safe, the songs remained encouraging, inspiring and, at times, confrontational.

Songs from “Legend,” Marley’s omnipresent greatest-hits package, drew the biggest responses. The opening notes of “Could You Be Loved” and “Jamming” were all it took to get everyone dancing. An enthusiastic call-and-response during the chorus on “Buffalo Soldier” pumped up the already energized crowd.

Chisholm and singer Dwayne Anglin performed alone for a stirring version of “Redemption Song.” The full band returned for an extended medley of “Exodus” and “Punky Reggae Party” to close the 90-minute set.

rusted root FYI 03132015 sp (4)Rusted Root, a five-piece band from Pittsburgh, mixes world instruments and rhythms with jam-band sensibilities. Its 100-minute opening set included two new songs and highlights going all the way back to the band’s 1992 debut album.

Standout moments included the propulsive “Rain,” a duet between lead vocalist Michael Glabicki and utility player Liz Berlin, who also played washboard. The hypnotic “Laugh as the Sun” found Berlin on pennywhistle. A reworked cover of “Suspicious Minds” opened with dueling bass and drums.

The set peaked with a massive romp that started with the Indian-tinged chant “Voodoo.” That led into a drum solo and jam, before working into “Ecstasy.” Everyone sang along with the closing number, “Send Me on My Way,” the band’s first and biggest hit.

Boston’s Adam Ezra Group started the night with a heartfelt half-hour set.

The Wailers setlist: Intro; Easy Skanking; Could You Be Loved; Lively Up Yourself; Survival; The Heathen; Rastaman Vibration; I Shot the Sheriff; Who the Cap Fit; Trenchtown Rock; Buffalo Soldier; Jamming; Encores: Redemption Song; Medley: Exodus/Punky Reggae Party.

Rusted Root setlist: Welcome to My Party; Martyr; Lost in a Crowd; Suspicious Minds; Tumbleweed; Food and Creative Love; Laugh as the Sun; Cover Me Up; Save Me; Rain; Voodoo (drum solo); Ecstasy; Send Me on My Way.

Keep reading:

Review: Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers

Review: Skatalites

Review: Jimmy Cliff

Happy Clash-mas Eve

 (Above: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros delight in performing Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Every Christmas Eve, a significant block of time is set aside to honor the late Joe Strummer, who died on Dec. 22, 2002. This year, The Daily Record celebrates Strummer’s lifelong love of reggae music.

The Clash – “Pressure Drop”

Joe Strummer – “The Harder They Come”

Joe Strummer and Jimmy Cliff – “Over the Border”

In the early days of the London punk scene, DJ/filmmaker/musician Don Letts played reggae albums at the famed Roxy Club. At first the reggae was a necessity – the punk scene was still too young for any of the bands to record their own material. But even after the punk catalog exploded, the reggae remained.

“The punks were digging on the old anti-establishment chant down Babylon (attitude), heavy bass lines and they didn’t mind the weed,” Letts told Mojo magazine in 2008.

Not that this was many of the punks’ first exposure to the Jamaican genres.

“People like (Joe) Strummer, (John) Lydon and (Paul) Simonon didn’t need Don Letts to turn them on,” Letts said in the same interview.

Jimmy Cliff in "The Harder They Come."

Strummer, Simonon and the remaining members of the Clash likely stumbled upon Toots and the Maytalls’ “Pressure Drop” shortly after its 1972 release on the soundtrack to “The Harder They Come.” Both the film and the soundtrack had a profound influence on Strummer. In 1977 the band covered “Pressure Drop,” which was released in 1979 as the b-side to “English Civil War.” The title of their second album, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” borrows the style of “The Harder They Come” by introducing a well-known phrase and letting the second half remain implied (i.e. “… and they’ll hang themselves”).

“Safe European Home,” one of the tracks on “Rope,” not only name checks “The Harder They Come,” but borrows the phrase “Rudie can’t fail” from another reggae song, foreshadowing the band’s biggest foray into the ska/Two-Tone sound. Finally, Strummer borrowed the film plot of “The Harder They Come” and adapted it to his British punk interpretation titled “Rude Boy.”

Two decades after the release of “Rude Boy,” Strummer recorded his own version of “The Harder They Come.” Teaming with the Long Beach Dub All-Stars and U.K. reggae singer Tippa Irie, his cover was released on the 2000 benefit album “Free the West Memphis Three.” Strummer’s interpretation doesn’t alter much from Jimmy Cliff’s original, but he’s clearly having a great time. Strummer thought enough of the song that another recording of the song was posthumously released the b-side to “Coma Girl.” Recorded live with the Strummer’s final band, the Mescaleros, this version is taken at a faster tempo and joyously ragged and raw.

At one of his final recording sessions, Strummer finally got to collaborate with Cliff. Upon learning where Cliff was recording his latest album, Strummer showed up with some unfinished lyrics in hand that he felt Cliff should sing. “Over the Border,” the song that grew out of this partnership appeared on Cliff’s 2004 album “Black Magic.”

Cliff described the session with Gibson.com shortly before his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.

“The two of them (producer Dave Stewart and Strummer) began playing guitar, and I came up with the melody, and then Joe chipped in with some help on the melody as well,” Cliff said. “We recorded the song right away. That was a really special moment for me. You can imagine the shock I felt after hearing that Joe was not with us anymore.”

Keep reading:

Happy Clash-mas Eve (2009)

Happy Clash-mas Eve (2008)

Review: Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers

Original Wailers keep promise to Bob Marley

 

John Legend and the Roots – “Wake Up!”

 (Above: First Stephen Foster, then Ray Charles. Now John Legend and the Roots have “Hard Times.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

A little more than three months after releasing one of the best albums of their 17-year career, The Roots are back, this time with John Legend.

The pairing is inspired. The Roots have long have a reputation as the best band in hip hop. For the past couple years they’ve proved their mettle to the mainstream as the house band on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” Legend is clearly a great talent, but often gets overwhelmed by slick production and light-weight songwriting. These 10 reinterpretations of classic soul protest songs offer the perfect platform for him to shine.

Legend lives up to the opportunity, singing with grit and emotion only hinted at on his solo albums, and feeding off the Roots’ vibe. Opening cut “Hard Times,” a lost Curtis Mayfield classic written for Baby Huey, feeds off a horn line ricocheting off of Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s drums and Captain Kirk Douglas’ bright guitar. Black Thought’s rap in the middle reinforces the track’s message and feel. This is music to spark both revolution and revelry.

“Wake Up Everybody” features a guest rhyme from Common that feels like a verse from a lost hymn. Legend’s duet with Melanie Fiona here captures the same mood as a classic Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell number. “Little Ghetto Boy” – bolstered by another Black Thought cameo – and the buoyant gospel reading of Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free” are other high points.

Unfortunately, the album can’t sustain these moments. Legend’s vocal shortcomings come to the foreground on “Wholy Holy.”Gaye’s voice soars effortlessly on the original, while Legend strains just to lift off. His over-singing on Bill Wither’s “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” is accidentally exposed by Douglas’ understated, tasteful soloing.

Not all of the blame lies at Legend’s feet. Normally an impeccable arranger, there are some surprising issues with Thompson’s choices. Les McCann’s “Compared to What” swings and skips like a rock skimming the top of a lake. Thompson’s slower arrangement is leaden in comparison. His treatment of Lincoln Thompson’s (no relation) reggae song “Humanity (Love the Way it Should Be)” hews closely to the original, but without the Jamaican patois it seems stiff and forced. The performance should have been reworked to emphasize what Legend could bring to the number.

“Wake Up” was inspired by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory and Arcade Fire’s song “Wake Up.” The original plan was record an EP, and truthfully Legend and the Roots should have stayed with that concept. The handful of strong cuts present would have made for an outstanding mid-player. As is, this is a solid album with plenty of outstanding moments, but ample opportunity to skip to the next cut. Or, better yet, seek out the originals.

Keep reading:

Review: For The Roots It’s All In The Music

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”

Fans delay Maxwell’s next album

Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry

(Above: The eccentric Lee “Scratch” Perry shows Jools Holland around his Black Ark studio in Kingston, Jamaica in the late ’70s. Perry produced reggae greats Junior Murvin, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Max Romeo, U-Roy and many more at Black Ark before it mysteriously burned to the ground.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Halfway through the third song of the night, Lee “Scratch” Perry ordered the band to halt. He wasn’t feeling it from the crowd, and reggae can’t be performed without the proper energy. After admonishing the audience and getting the desired feedback, Perry and his four-piece backing band resumed the number.

The request may have seemed more reasonable had it occurred hours earlier. The hundred or so fans who populated the Beaumont Club Sunday evening had patiently waited through two bands and an overlong DJ set. As the clock tipped toward Monday, they had a right to be tired.

Fortunately, both the crowd and Perry were rejuvenated by the time-out. The 73-year-old reggae legend delivered over an hour of his favorites and four songs by Bob Marley, one of the scores of reggae greats Perry has produced throughout his five-decade career.

Marley’s songs were nearly unrecognizable. Perry didn’t own them as much as deconstruct the numbers, turning them into springboards for his chanted verses and call-and-response choruses. “Kaya,” a number Perry co-wrote and produced with Marley closed the night, while “One Drop,” a number Marley wrote and recorded alone, concluded a trio of interpretations.

With scores of albums to his name, Perry had more than enough original material to draw from. “Roast Fish and Cornbread” came from his heyday in the late ‘70s, while set opening “Secret Laboratory” hailed from a decade later. The playful “Pum Pum” came from last year’s collaboration with “Party Hard” rocker Andrew W.K.

Although Perry’s arrangements are similar, Lionized, the four-piece Maryland band backing him, did a good job of mixing textures and varying tempos. They knew how to push both Perry and the crowd for maximum effect.

Lionized got 40 minutes for themselves before Perry took the stage. They were preceded by local DJ FSTZ, who spun dub, trance and techno for 70 minutes. 77 Jefferson took the stage when the sun was still up with an upbeat 40-minute set.

The diminutive Perry took the stage at 11 p.m. carrying a suitcase and wearing enough bling to make Flavor Flav and Lil Jon blush. Rings decorated every finger and multiple bracelets adorned each wrist. Mirrors and amulets were stuffed into every surface of his cap and spray-painted work boots. More than a dozen charms dangled around the microphone head.

The reggae equivalent of Sun Ra, Perry has claimed to be from outer space at various times throughout his career. He proved it a couple times on Sunday night by dumping a bottle of water over his cap-covered head and right shoe while dancing what looked like the hokey pokey during “Roast Fish and Cornbread.” Later in the set he flicked his lighter and licked it with his tongue.

The small crowd negated any sightline issues – there was more than enough room for everyone on the dance floor. Sound was good, but clarity isn’t Perry’s aim. He mixes everything into a large, murky soup. Although instruments were discernable, his voice wasn’t. Drenched in artificial echo and natural patios it was hard to make out what he was saying.

It wasn’t difficult to figure out what Perry wanted, though. Jah and love, sure, but also lots of dancing and movement. Once Perry threw down the gauntlet, an unspoken agreement was struck: You give me what I want, and I’ll give you what you came for. Although it took longer than either anticipated, both sides ultimately got what they wanted.

Setlist (as written, though not performed in this order): Secret Laboratory, Inspector Gadget, Jungle Safari, Roast Fish and Cornbread, Jah Live, Sun is Shining, One Drop, I Am A Mad Man, Devil Dead, Wait Inna Babylon, Kaya, Pum Pum

Review: Sly and Robbie

(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.