Reggae Reviews

by Tom Orr

The Cannons, Life Elements Vision (L.E.V. Records, 2002)
Groundation, Hebron Gate (Young Tree Records YTR-1219 CD, 2002)
Dub Station, Forward Ever (Krucial/Dub Station Music DS-LP3, 2003)
The Uplifters, Burning Bush (The Uplifters Foundation, 2002)

These four recent releases show that American reggae is not only alive and well, but in many ways it's kicking harder than any other reggae on the planet. Though the rap-influenced dancehall style remains the rage and racks up all the commercial success nowadays, the return-to-roots vibe is injecting a new sense of righteousness in reggae the world over, including the U.S.

The Cannons, based in Santa Barbara, CA, mix in more than a few hip-hop beats and raps with their reggae, but they keep the message positive on Life Elements Vision. Solid roots tunes like "Run Come" and the title track rest comfortably alongside dancehall militance, lovers rock, conscious themes and a contemporary edge that lets enough of the classic style seep in. A bit uneven, but impressive overall.

From the northern California city of Santa Rosa comes Groundation, a band named for the lengthy drumming and chanting praise sessions engaged in by devout Rastafarians. Their Hebron Gate is a wonderfully hypnotic and rhythmically adventurous triumph. It's roots reggae for sure, but the unhurried length of the songs and emphasis on superb instrumental work show a definite jazz influence. The whole disc grooves in classic Jamaican style while memorable horn and keyboard work and intricate instrumental passages invite dancing and trancing in equal measure. Guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Harrison Stafford sings in a reedy growl that takes some getting used to, but he soon establishes a wise-elder feel that contrasts sweetly with the female background singers. There are guest vocals by former Black Uhuru member and acclaimed solo artist Don Carlos and the Congos' Cedric Myton, and their contributions add depth to something already very deep to begin with. Hebron Gate is a disc that all reggae fans, casual or hardcore, should own.

Boston's Dub Station combine live bass with programmed drum rhythms (they use a real drummer on stage) to form the foundation for their modern roots reggae that also includes keyboards, guitar and a horn section. On Forward Ever they are fronted by a half-dozen different vocalists, including the righteous tones of I-Tal Fire, the deft chatting of Sonbeam and the interestingly named Tweet' A Bird, who sounds like the Mighty Diamonds' Tabby Shaw at times. The songs pulsate solidly, with subject matter focusing on spiritual strength, resiliency and overcoming adversity. This is reggae that not only sounds up to date, it sounds just plain great. By the time you reach the end of the closing track, "Father Moses," the urge to hit the play button and hear the whole thing over again may be hard to resist.

Based in New York City after forming in the upstate town of Ithaca, The Uplifters share Groundation's low-key intensity and ability to weave a jazz feel in with their reggae. Their drums/bass/congas framework is amazingly tight and can effortlessly deconstruct and rebuild the groove every which way. Moody, murky keyboards and guitar ooze in and out, melancholy sax solos surface, disappear and resurface, and the relaxed but passionate vocals of guitarist/singer David Linhart bring out the almost surreal quality of lyrics concerned with truth, reality, peace and spiritual mysticism. Burning Bush is 72 minutes of stunningly good reggae, remarkable for what it achieves and for the elusive emotional reach it continually seems to be striving for.

Tom Orr is a Southern California-based freelance writer, actor, percussionist, 9 to 5-er, husband, daddy, and aspiring deep thinker. He acquires more music than he has time to listen to, and feels the only solution is to acquire even more.