[EDITOR'S NOTE: The hotlinks on this page connect with live audio and interview clips that Isaac recorded on his three-day reggae overload. They are rad.] As the famed Ragga Muffins festival makes its way up the California coast to end in San Francisco each spring, many reggae artists left with extra time on their visas try to fit in a few extra tour dates. The end of February and beginning of March always brings at least one big name act to Portland.
This year the stars aligned to bring us a three-night marathon of classic roots reggae, and your intrepid reporter attended all three shows. I sensed that this was a make or break run for me; either I would leave with a greater love and respect for the music, or I would be cured of reggae once and for all.
I'll just cut to the chase here and tell you that one show stood far above the other two. Both the Steel Pulse and Gladiators shows were good individually, but neither was knock-em-dead phenomenal. By the time Eek-A-Mouse came around, I was running on Sparx and Red Bull alone, and worried that maybe I just didn't like reggae as much as I used to. But a combination of an energetic crowd, a tight band, and a masterful performer restored my skankin' desires to the fullest. I crown the Mouse king of PDX Reggae-thon '07.
Roots reggae is a bit of an odd beast these days. Since the advent of the harder, more urban dancehall reggae in the 1980s, the popularity of roots has been on the decline in it's motherland of Jamaica. But western audiences, introduced through Bob Marley in the 1970s, have continued to support the original sounds. This means is that a lot of artists have been able to get by touring decades old material year after year. Many people don't go to these shows to see something new, but rather to hear the classics played live. So in many cases a roots show comes down to the quality of the backing band, the energy of the crowd, and the performer's ability to manipulate and feed off that energy. I went in to these shows hopeful that the classics could be refreshed in the right hands, and that each show would be dynamic in its own right.
Night #1--Steel Pulse @ The Crystal Ballroom
was on Wednesday, February 28th. This is one of my all time favorite spots for a bigger show, but a band that I have never been fully in love with. But clearly, Steel Pulse is still widely popular; the 1,500 capacity room was sold-out to a diverse (in age and appearance, not race) crowd. I first noticed the baseball hat boys, a jockier, loud, cigarette smoking type not seen at typical reggae shows. As I moved up through a crowd of baby dreads on the all-ages side of the room, I came to rest in a cluster of groovin' boomers getting down like old times.
David Hinds belted out classics like "Your House"
with the band in full effect behind him. After seeing a string of fairly mediocre reggae bands, it was refreshing to see a crew that so obviously knew their chops. British second wave all stars, Steel Pulse has been together for over 30 years, and the mix was just about perfect. Full bass and clear highs, along with a nice dose of dubbed-out mixing, made this show feel polished and complete.
The crowd was full of energy, dancing and singing along to all the hits, like a great "Steppin' Out"
. Interestingly, I saw few of the "reggae-ulars", the scenesters who show up for many of the smaller shows. Perhaps they were saving themselves for the next two nights of music, or maybe it was the steep $26 ticket that kept them away. It struck me that tonight's reggae crowd was the sort whose purported love of the music stems largely from their Bob Marley "Legend" and Steel Pulse Best Of CDs, the sort of crowd that isn't interested in contemporary caribbean music.
But for a collection of mostly well-played songs, the quality of the live performance made for a lively and engaging show. Hinds is an excellent performer who seems aware of his audience
. Steel Pulse is one of those bands that has some of your favorite songs, but too many studio tracks simply suck. Much of the cheesiness that ruins their studio work was absent in the live show, and I enjoyed the music more than ever. Unfortunately, the band took an early set break, and when they came out again for the encore, a lot of the crowd energy evaporated in a masturbatory, slow guitar and drums intro into a lacadaisical "Chant a Psalm".
By far the best sounds of the night came late into the set, when the band settled into a some bass- and effects-heavy dubs
. Some of these songs began to trancend the roots mold and incorporate flavors of the global electronic music scene. The keyboardist laid down some fire lyrics throughout the night, which were some of my favorite moments. But live horns would have helped, as synth heavy songs tended to get old after awhile.
Overall, this was a top notch reggae show in sound and performance. Steel Pulse will never be my favorite reggae band, but I was impressed with the show. Apparently the band was quite pleased, as they wrote this on their tour log, "The Seattle concert was well received but the Portland, Oregon show was off the hook!! You Portland folks sure know how to rock!!"
If that's the case, guys, why did you end at 11:30?!? Shows at the Crystal Ballroom tend to start at least an hour earlier than other venues, but I still felt the show could have easily gone another hour. But thankfully, it did not, and I had energy to conserve for night #2 of PDX Roots Marathon '07.
Night #2--The Gladiators @ Berbati's
was on March first. Berbati's was depressingly empty as I filed in, and the few people inside were hugging to the darker edges of the room. This mid-size room can be frustratingly hard to fill on a weekday, even with a well-known band, and I was worried there would simply not be enough of a crowd to make it a real show.
One of my favorite local bands, Uprite Dub Orchestra, took to the stage to play an opening set. These guys are awesome. They play tight ska and funk flavored reggae that is driven by great live horns. The music is tight and creative, and mostly unmuddled by stereotypical white rasta lyrics. I think Upright has simply played too many opening slots, and do not garner the local headliner status they deserve. Few people stood to dance to the truly rocking set, which included one of the most creative versions of the Studio One classic "Rock Fort Rock"
I have ever heard.
Uprite left the stage, and the sound man popped on a random CD (Ben Harper maybe?). What little energy Uprite created mostly amongst the crowd dissipated without a DJ to carry on the vibes. The Gladiators took some time to take to the stage. Thankfully, this interim allowed the room to fill to just under 200, which feels like the bare minimum needed to support a Berbati's show.
The band set up and played a few tracks with LA roots performer Zema. While she clearly has a love of reggae, and should be recognized for her work as tour manager and "den mother" for The Gladiators, her performance was fairly flat
. I have yet to hear her studio work, but she could use more power in her live act.
In their prime, The Gladiators were one of the hottest roots acts of all time. Formed in 1967, the Studio One band included singer Albert Griffiths and bassist Clinton Fearon. While a few of the musicians in tonight's show were presented as original, none were founding members. Fearon now plays out of Seattle with his Boogie Brown Band. There was a rumor that he would reunite with the Glads for the show, but alas it was not to be.
Albert Griffiths has been replaced by his capable son, Al, who in the last six years has taken over the reigns. Al's voice is at times eerily similar to Albert's originals, which is both good and bad. Good, because it makes the music sound like it should, bad because it essentially makes the Gladiators a cover band of themselves.
and vocal harmonies
were the strong suits of the set. The band was made up of Jamaican studio perfomers, young and old, who kept capably within the groove. But the vibe was disrupted by Al Griffiths persistent calls of "how you feeling?" After the umpteenth time he called for a response from the sparse crowd, Griffiths attempts to energize began to do exactly the opposite.
It's hard to blame him for trying to pump up the audience, however, because they had just played for crowds of thousands during the Ragga Muffins tour. The band looked tired to me, with Al being the only performer on stage who was truly active througout the whole show. But at the end of the show, the last of a 10 stop tour, band members (interview clip)
told me it was their favorite show, the climax of the tour.
The Gladiators now fill a funny slot in the music world, straddling the fence between classic act and cover band. One new song
with Zema was a fresher take on the music. And it is often fun the hear the oldies artfully executed. But a dead room is a dead room, and there just wasn't enough energy to carry the night.
I was tired before the music was over, and stayed late into the night interviewing the band. So by the time I got to the final night of Reggae Marathon '07 I could barely get off the couch to drag myself down to Dante's. Thankfully, caffeine and alcohol helped carry me into...
Night #3--Eek-A-Mouse @ Dante's
on Friday, March 2nd. Would the town turn out for a Friday night, or was the Gladiators' show a harbinger of another empty club? I took the line stretching down Burnside as a good sign, and was greeted with a packed room. I have never been to Dante's or
seen Eek-A-Mouse live before, and I was curious how a reggae show would play at a club that often features go-go dancers. The third in three nights of roots reggae didn't seem to tire the scene, and many more people were at night three than night two.
On stage was So-Cal Sublime stand-in, The B Foundation mixing punk rock and reggae sounds
. In talking to these guys, I got the sense that they resent the Sublime comparison, but it is completely unavoidable. They sound just like the early '90s band, minus the false depth of heroin lyrics. The lead singer even sounds a bit like Brad Nowell. But whatever, their sound was fun, and I like Sublime (yes, still). B Foundation was a good bridge between Dante's darker side and tonight's irier vibe.
I followed B Foundation downstairs to get a few words with them, and saw Eek-A-Mouse sitting in a folding chair, head in his hands, soldier's helmet on his head. The Mouse is a huge man, six-foot-six with an eagle's wingspan. He radiated an intense energy, and everyone in the green room seemed to avoid looking directly at him.
I thought he was in a funk, and got a grumpy vibe from him. But he was happy to speak for a few moments (hear the interview)
before taking the stage. Apparently he had some money problems, with someone stealing from him. But after two years off from touring, he returned with the aptly titled "Out of Exile" tour. I got the sense the Mouse still had some weighty issues on his mind, but it all melted away as soon as he took the stage.
Contrary to his name, Eek-A-Mouse is a giant of a man. His vocal range borders on the impossible, from deep bass to incongruously high falsettos (hear them here)
. Some people consider him a one trick pony, lumping his distinctive style into the novelty category. But the Mouse displayed the best mic control and crowd interaction of all three nights of reggae. Throughout the night, Eek-A-Mouse played with his signature vocal improvisations, creating an almost scat-like sound of "bong deng dengs" and "biddy bongs." He restored my belief in an exciting reggae show, and I immediately forgot my concert fatigue.
The audience was so pumped, drunk, and crowded that I saw at least two pretty serious girl-fights break out, with bouncers dragging several people out. At first I attributed the violence, which I have NEVER seen at a reggae show, to Dante's, which was overcrowded and generally serves a more metal crowd. It seems unlikely that the roots music
would enrage the crowd. But a quick surf of the message boards revealed fights at several of this tour's stops. While the Mouse is considered to be harder than other roots artists, less "conscious", I can't say I picked up on an agro vibe in his performance.
But the crowd settled down and the Mouse took control
. He sang in perfect rhythm and tune, showing that he was the master of the music. It is nice to have an excited crowd and a performer who really knows how to make use of that energy. Usually, reggae call and response songs in this town are met with lazy participation. But tonight the crowd kept right along with Eek's "biddy biddy bongs."
I really appreciated that Eek-A-Mouse didn't let the energy die. Almost as soon as a song was over, the next would begin. He didn't dawdle, but neither did he rush. The band added some tasty dubs to classics I have never heard live. Not once did the Mouse falter, and his enthusiasm seemed to grow as the show went on. From my estimates, the band played at least a two and a half hour show, with two long encores.
I have to say, this was one of the more enjoyable reggae shows I have ever seen. Eek-A-Mouse gets some flack from the reggae community, but I would recommend you not judge him 'til you see him live. Tonight the mix was perfect, and the master was in full control.
So, once again I found myself leaving a reggae show late at night. But tonight I left elated and happy, not tired. Three nights of roots taught me that energy is perhaps the single most important, yet elusive, of reggae concert components. I look forward to a week off of music, before comparing these classic sounds to the newer Midnite band out of St. Croix, who is playing at the Wonder Ballroom on Friday, March 8.
Uprite Dub Orchestra
The B Foundation on Myspace