Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band

Artist: Easy Star All-Stars

Title: Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band

Label: Easy Star Records

Catalog No.: ES-1018

Release Date: April 14, 2009

One of my earliest childhood musical memories was thumbing through my father’s record collection and coming across the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I remember the album cover fascinating me so much that I just had to put the record on the turntable. From the first note of Sgt. Pepper I was hooked, and as each song seamlessly moved into the next I began to imagine the colorful soundscape that the music painted. Heralded as one of the most influential albums of all time, Sgt. Pepper is also considered to be a ground breaking example of the concept album, which is the primary reason that the Easy Star collective decided to re-envision a reggae/dub version of the album. After the success of the collectives’ first two albums, Dub Side of the Moon (2003) and Radiodread (2006), Michael Goldwasser of the Easy Star All-Stars cites the reasons behind the decision to infuse reggae into a Beatles classic: “We’ve focused on re-envisioning concept albums as reggae and it’s really important that the source material works as a whole and is not just a collection of songs. So, what better to take on next than the mother of all concept albums?”

The Easy Star All-Stars is a coalition of reggae producers and performers based in New York on the independent Easy Star label. The focus of the Easy Star All-Stars has always been on the process and the music itself.  First, Easy Star co-founders Eric Smith, Lem Oppenheimer and Michael Goldwasser make the decision on which albums will get the Easy Star treatment. Then Goldwasser, the producer, musical director, arranger and guitarist of the group, painstakingly transforms arrangements of the source material into reggae style: the goal is a musical melding at the genetic level, not just a parody with a summery beat. The band itself operates as a collective, with a rotating cast of musicians and artist contributing. At the core of the Easy Star Lonely Hearts Dub Band (ESLHDB) are Victor Rice (bass), Victor “Ticklah” Axelrod (keyboards), and Patrick Dougher (drums/percussion), augmented by Eddie Ocampo (drums). Also involved are active touring members of the Easy Star All-Stars, including Ras I Ray (bass, vocals), Ive-09 (percussion), Jennifer Hill (saxophone), Buford O’Sullivan (trombone), Pam Fleming (trumpet), and Tamar-kali (vocals).

As with the previous records, Goldwasser brought in a who’s who of reggae, dub and dancehall greats to contribute guest vocals. Steel Pulse, Matisyahu, Michael Rose (Black Uhuru), Bunny Rugs (Third World), and Ranking Roger (English Beat/General Public) are the most recognizable names; longtime Easy Star collaborators Sugar Minott and Frankie Paul continue their powerful association with the group; U Roy (a founder of deejay toasting), Max Romeo and The Mighty Diamonds are among the other veteran guest artists sure to generate anticipation amongst staunch reggae fans.

Having tackled the dark complexities of the human condition on Dub Side of the Moon and the depths of the human/computer/alien psyche on Radiodread, basing the next album in the series on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is both a logical choice and a departure of sorts. While it is widely credited as being one of the first concept albums (and therefore the stylistic predecessor of Dark Side of the Moon and OK Computer), Sgt. Pepper stands apart from both of these albums in that it is basically a collection of major-key pop songs. As with the first two albums, Goldwasser stayed true to the lyrics, melodies and chord changes of the songs, envisioning as if the songs had been written by Lennon/McCartney (and Harrison), but had been recorded in Jamaica under the influence of reggae. “With Dub Side, we translated Gilmore’s guitar solos into more traditional reggae elements, like a deejay toasting,” explains Goldwasser. “On “Paranoid Android,” [from Radiodread] we transformed heavy guitar solos into trombone lines. Here, we went the opposite direction. We embraced rock elements such as guitar solos, as well as conventional string sections, and more exotic instruments such as sitar and tabla. In doing so, we pushed the boundaries of traditional Jamaican reggae, just as the Beatles stretched popular music when they made the album in the first place.”

Conceptually, Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band stands alone just as the original album did, and personally I feel it breathes new life into a timeless classic. Since its release, ESLHDB has been #1 on the Billboard reggae charts and The Easy Star All-Stars have embarked on a Lonely Hearts tour.

For over a decade, Easy Star Records has been a trendsetting independent reggae label. Dub Side of the Moon and Radiodread form the backbone of a catalogue that includes progressive albums from John Brown’s Body and Easy Star All-Stars keyboardist Ticklah, reissues of classic materials from Sugar Minott and Linval Thompson, and new recordings from reggae legends the Meditations and Sister Carol. For more information on Easy Star Records and its collective check out their website.

Posted by Heather O’Sullivan

All Rebel Rockers

Title: All Rebel Rockers
Artist: Michael Franti and Spearhead
Label: ANTI/Boo Boo Wax
Catalog No.: ANTI 86906/89-2
Release Date: September 2008

In his sixth studio release, All Rebel Rockers, Michael Franti digs deep into the dub/reggae pocket and pulls out legendary “Riddim Twins” drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare. From the moment the needle drops you can tell that Sly and Robbie produced this project. Franti has collaborated with the Riddim Twins in the past, but this time he “wanted that groove and a toughness to the rhythm” that just simply drips from a full-on Sly and Robbie production. Recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, and in Franti’s home base, San Francisco, this album takes the listener by the seat of the pants and gets your body rocking.

Franti is known for his social political lyrics and, with guitar and microphone in hand, he juggles the identity of singer, songwriter, musician, author, activist, documentarian, and new millennium bard. Born and raised around the Bay area, Franti’s love for music escalated during college at University of San Francisco, when he lived above the college radio station. In 1989, he formed the Beatnigs, an industrial punk band with DJ Rono Tse, and achieved minimal local success. In 1991, Franti continued his collaboration with Tse, forming The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Adding the guitar of Charlie Hunter, The Disposable Heroes broke through with in-your-face lyrics that dealt with social injustice fused to an industrial/hip hop sound. The success of their first album eventually led to an opening spot on the U2 Zoo TV tour and a project with novelist William S. Burroughs entitled Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales.

In 1994 Franti formed Spearhead along with bassist Carl Young. Spearhead moved away from the industrial/hip hop sound to a more soulful funk-oriented style, while retaining the socially conscience ideology. Franti released Home and Chocolate Supa Highway on the Capitol label before deciding to start his own label, citing differences with Capitol over artistic direction. In 2000, Franti released Stay Human on his label Boo Boo Wax under the name of Michael Franti and Spearhead (necessary because Capitol still owned the rights to the name Spearhead). Stay Human dealt with issues of prison reform, corrupt politicians, corporate globalization, and more poignant issues related to maintaining self respect and dignity. In 2003, Franti released Everyone Deserves Music, which featured songs that he had written in the aftermath of 9/11. This album was both reactionary and therapeutic, with songs that dealt with the shock of 9/11 as well as songs that were written in order to cope with the fear of the changing world.

In 2004 Franti embarked on a documentary project in Iraq, Palestine, and Israel in order to put his “money where his mouth is.” Franti felt if he was going to criticize the U.S. occupation of Iraq that he needed to have firsthand experience. The result of this was the film, I Know I’m Not Alone, in which Franti talked to the culture bearers, the poets, artists, musicians and everyday people, including the soldiers, in order to show the human cost of war. Franti continued to write songs during his trip to the Middle East, which resulted in the 2006 release Yell Fire!. This album had such a distinct reggae feel to it that they were re-classified as a Reggae group. Franti collaborated with Sly and Robbie on this album and it seems only natural that he would continue this relationship on his new album.

All Rebel Rockers features the Spearhead core group: Carl Youngand Dave Shul on guitar, Manas Itene on drums, and Raliegh J. Neal, II on keyboards. Michael is backed by several very special guests including Zap Mama founder Marie Daulne and Jamaican soul/dancehall star Cherine Anderson. The album gets right to the point with the first track “The Rude Boys Back in Town,” a song that requires a decent audio system due to the deep bass and Dub effects that will shake your body to the core. The first half of the album is extremely danceable with themes ranging from social ailment, political injustice, economic woes and lovers’ laments. My personal favorite is the track “Say Hey (I Love You),” a song that is so catchy it will stick with you for days. Following is the promotional video from Anti Records:

The album also features several songs that fuse a heavy rock style with reggae/dub rhythm, which seems reminiscent of Franti’s early work with the Beatnigs. He has been quoted saying that he wants to give the revolution a dance party soundtrack, and he clearly states this on the track “Soundsystem.” Franti has taken the protest song to the next level by giving it a “beat you can rock your soul to.” He then shows a very personal side with “I Got Love for You,” a song that he wrote as his eldest son was preparing to go out on his own for the first time. As with most of Franti’s albums, the last track is one of hope. “Have a Little Faith” does not disappoint, and seeks to reassure the listener of the commitment Franti has to his audience.

Franti’s music is always in a state of evolution, from punk to funk to reggae/dub, it seems to really represent the complex fusion of identities in the growth of the musician and the man. His commitment to humanity led him to organize the annual Power to the Peaceful festivals in San Francisco and Brazil. He has also been named an Ambassador of Peace by the World Health Organization. “At six-foot-six, he’ll grab the mic, and take you to another level.”

Posted by Heather O’Sullivan