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.