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Dub-ble trouble: Easy Star All-Stars at Revolution Hall.

Photo: Julia Zave

Reggae Pride

By Josh Potter

Easy Star All-Stars

Revolution Hall, April 25

 

Cover bands usually take one of two approaches to playing other people’s music. The first, most-common sort, bang out a variety of recognizable tunes, sometimes by bands who would otherwise have nothing to do with one another, because it’s fun music that most people know and can party to. Then there are tribute acts who hone in on one particular band in order to re-create that original experience down to every (often humorous) detail.

The Easy Star All-Stars have a different approach. An ad hoc collection of musicians, assembled by New York City reggae label Easy Star, they deal in reggae reinterpretations of famous rock albums. Sounds kinda corny, right? It could be if the group were tackling, say, Back in Black, but there’s something about the dark neuroses of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the feverish paranoia of Radiohead’s OK Computer that actually works when run though the filter of dub reggae. These, the band’s first two ventures, remained on the Billboard reggae chart for multiple years each. Their most recent, however, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band, might have been a misstep.

After a trio of original tunes opened the set at Revolution Hall—because, who are we kidding, all cover bands long to do their own thing—Easy Star worked through the first three tracks of the album. As with any cover song (especially anything by the Beatles), there was something fun and familiar about their rocksteady rendition of the poppy title track, but it wasn’t until “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” that the band reached beyond simple novelty and revealed their strongest suit. Perhaps more than bassist Ras I Ray’s command of late-’60s-era crooning or vocalist Menny More’s rubbery dancehall hype, it was the presence of dub engineer Justin Filmer behind the soundboard that gave Easy Star real depth. Applying delay to vocals and panning echoing rim shots all around the room’s PA system, the more Filmer asserted himself, the more interesting the cover songs became. Later, his spacey remixed coda was about the only thing that saved More’s incredibly goofy rendition of “When I’m Sixty-Four.”

Because of this, the band’s take on Pink Floyd and Radiohead was actually pretty brilliant. “Breathe” was dark and heavy with big, chest-thumping bass lines, atmospheric keyboards and the chaotic psych-rock comet crash of the studio rendition’s outro. While “Money” verged on the disposable novelty of the Beatles covers, it did give the band a rare opportunity to play reggae in 7/4 time.

No doubt, the pairing of dub reggae with Dark Side of the Moon (which is enjoying a bit of a renaissance with a recent re-creation by the Flaming Lips) makes some sense due to both the form and the album having emerged within the same musical era, but the Radiohead material was even more interesting, not only because of that band’s debt to dub production techniques, but because of an unlikely, shared sociopolitical perspective. Songs like “Exit Music” and “Paranoid Android,” in their bleak, techno-apocalyptic view of what civilization has become, provided a compelling (however depressing) response to that Rastafarian dread of Babylon at the heart of ’70s reggae music.

It’s unlikely that cover bands are going to shake their stigma anytime soon, but that’s kind of ironic due to our recent reverence for the mash-up artist who also recontextualizes other people’s art. Drawing on the time-tested (however static) tropes that make reggae such reliable dance music, Easy Star may actually fall more in that latter camp. What other band could encore with “Time,” “Lovely Rita” and “Karma Police” and make it feel like more than a just a collection of crowd favorites?

 

Doobie Doobie Dude

Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, John Hammond

The Egg, April 23

This is, um, a critique—no, that may be too big of a, a word, so, I mean, um, a review of Dan, Dan Hicks and the, ah, Hot Licks at the Egg . . . a very, a very complex place, you know, last, when was it again, oh yeah, Friday.

That’s about what Hicks’ just-smoked-a-doobie stage persona was like. His audiences must have been amused in the late 1960s, but now the shtick just seemed lame. And although the bright spots predominated in an evening of acoustic swing, a couple of the tunes were palsied as well.

Hicks and company, consisting of Hicks on acoustic rhythm guitar, Benito Cortez on fiddle, Dave Bell on acoustic lead guitar, Paul Smith on eclectic upright bass, and backup singers-percussionists Roberta Donnay and Daria—that’s just Daria, thank you—opened with a gypsy-jazz instrumental version of the 1920 Tin Pan Alley hit “Avalon.” Cortez’s bluegrass-influenced fiddling was up to snuff, but Bell couldn’t approach Django Reinhardt’s brilliant, mercurial improvisations. He missed notes, and lacked the appropriate pick technique for the daunting manouche style. (Later on, Bell played better on downtempo tunes that showcased his oddball phrasing.)

Another clunker, at least early on, was Hicks’ original, “I Scare Myself”—the song parked on the flamenco chord change of E to F so long that I got scared it would never end. It resolved wonderfully, though, with a hilarious mime of guitar playing by Hicks while Bell played with his back to the audience.

By and large, though, Hicks was big fun. Bing Crosby’s “I’m An Old Cowhand (from the Rio Grande)” was an insouciant nod to Western swing. In the hokum tune “Beedle Um Bum” by Georgia Tom Dorsey (later Thomas A. Dorsey of black gospel fame), you never quite knew if Miss Simmy’s butcher shop was literally or figuratively carnal, but you could guess. On the other hand, the encore, “Four or Five Times,” unambiguously expressed the dream of a would-be sexual athlete.

Opening for Hicks was acoustic blues guitarist and rack-mounted harmonica player John Hammond Jr., who played a masterful set of solo fingerstyle material drawn mostly from the postwar Chicago and prewar singers. Hammond, who has been performing since the 1960s, creates his own guitar parts to the older songs, but everything he plays is pure blues. Considering the respective merits of Hicks’ and Hammond’s sets, Hicks should have opened for Hammond instead of vice versa. But in show biz, acoustic soloists almost always go on before bands, no matter who is better at what they do. Unfair, yes, but that’s the blues for you.

—Glenn Weiser


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