02 April 2011

Easy Star All Stars/The Green/Cas Haley at the Jefferson... review

It's been over ten years since Easy Star Volume One found its way into the studios of Charlottesville, Virginia's WTJU... thanks to the improbable migration of Lem Oppenheimer, one of the founding fathers of the New York-based label. It's also pretty safe to say that central Virginia is not the first place people think of when authentic roots reggae comes up in conversation... or becomes a town to host the infancy of yet another world tour extravaganza.
But, we sure got lucky, that way.

In the late 90s "roots" reggae was in something of a forgotten treasure: even then, so many of its defining performers had passed on too soon, and the fiscally-conservative and digital-driven Dancehall had pushed it into the shadows. Benzes, Bimmers and the Butterfly were a lot easier to "sell" than music that can make you "think while your feet just go" (to pervert a lyric by the once-popular Tom Tom Club, the Talking Heads spin-off that actually gave some recognition to the music).

Easy Star Records bucked that trend: In their back-to-basics approach, their first stroke of genius was building a bona fide "studio band" in the time-honored tradition of Jamaican music since the 1960s... and the examples set by Motown and Stax Records. Real instruments, real innovators, and roots realities... that was the stamp of approval, and what set them apart from the beginning. That first CD, mentioned above... fronted by Jamaican stars and talented newcomers, instantly raised the bar for reggae performers and studios, and signaled a return to what defines the music's greatness...

...and, it all came home to central Virginia, last night.

There are tour companions, and there are perfect bills. This current entourage is certainly the latter. All three of the acts featured in this newest set of troubadours have nailed down their performances early in the game, and, whether consciously created or not, reflect the world. Everybody, from everywhere. It's a mirror. It's an illustration of how reggae is inclusive, and speaks beyond its beginnings to a global feeling.

The opener, Cas Haley, won't ever be mistaken for Jamaican. He reminds me of people I know and see, everyday. And luckily, for me (one who rarely, if ever, watches commercial-infested, network television), his talents are brand new... and prodigious... and an excellent way to begin an evening.
Alone but for a syncopated and percussive acoustic guitar, his astonishing delivery and power ignited the enthusiasm of the ever-growing crowd with cut from his newest, Connection. A solo revelation... that is, until he was joined by the second act, Hawaii's The Green.

(I can't escape from injecting politics when it comes to reggae: it's the backbone of the music. If there are any doubts about how such an exotic location can spawn the genuine Word, Sound and Power and the feeling of the Wailers and Burning Spear (to name but a few), I can name a few books to correct that illusion: To Steal A Kingdom by Michael Dougherty, and, more recently, Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell. Hawaii was not willingly made fiftieth State, to put it mildly.)

It may have escaped notice by many, but Hawaii has a rich, recent tradition in reggae music.
The Hawaiian Style Band (which included traditional Slack Key's First Family, the Pahinuis) and it's most notable alumnus, the late, great Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, set the tone... and, his adaptation of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" jumped from what some would consider a novelty into a worldwide smash. The aforementioned Pahinui Brothers. Sean Na'auao. THC. Robi Khakalau. Those were my first revelations... and that's just scratching the surface.
Tight, sweet harmony. Seamless, chest-thudding, crucial bass-and-drum interplay. Skank, scratch and soul of guitars and keys. Roots reggae and dancehall. Strong, all-original selections, without the need of an obligatory Bob Marley cover. That's what this newest generation has to offer. They're tireless... and a tough act for the headliners to follow.

That is, unless you're the Easy Star All Stars.

Having evolved from a crack studio outfit into amazing tour veterans, they've long since crossed over from "college" radio playlists into bigger radio venues. Tackling masterpieces by musical icons like Pink Floyd, Radiohead, and, incredibly, the Beatles seemed audacious, at first. This is music woven into our DNA.
But, they pulled it off: while staying true to the originals, re-routing the rhythms into a one-drop reggae beat wouldn't have been convincing without mastery in the traditional bass-drums-guitars-keyboards unit... and the genius of filling in what could have been "gaps" with swing and punctuation by one of the best two-piece brass sections out there.
It might be a stretch to call them a "super group"... but, with their pedigrees, not by much.

And, that's why people filled the beautiful, restored movie palace that is the Jefferson Theater.

But, we got more.

Yet to be released (unit April 5th), their newest project, First Light, is built of completely original music... and it was well worth the wait. Lucky enough to have a listen prior to release (and the opportunity to present it on "Reggae Vibrations, earlier that day), it's phenomenal from start-to-finish. But, I had first-impression favorites. Interwoven with the show's crowd-pleasers, there they were: the title track, "Don't Stop The Music", and particularly "Reggae Pension"... lifted up with a massive bassline, reminiscent of Beres Hammond's first solo gem, "Groovy Little Thing".

Oh, yes it was.

Whether by design or providence, the Easy Star crew has assembled a line-up that must be experienced. It's a testament to the singers and players that the live performance took their studio work to a whole new level, which is saying something. That's as it should be.

If they appear anywhere near where you are--Go. Find out for yourself.
The Heartbeat of Reggae Thrives.

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