Album review: Roots of Creation “Grateful Dub”

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Several years ago I found myself at a hole-in-the-wall reggae record store in Albany, NY. I got my hands on a copy of Fire On The Mountain, a Grateful Dead tribute album bursting with reggae talent from the 70’s and 80’s. What interested me was how beautifully Dead translated to reggae instrumentation, and secondly, how so many Dead lyrics contain themes, phrases, and emotions that are common to reggae. New Hampshire’s Roots of Creation has always been passionate about the Dead, conversely integrating Dead song structure, lyricism, and the like into RoC’s blend of reggae, rock, and jam. So when they made Grateful Dub (self-released, 2018), the project just made sense- not because the Grateful Dead needs to be covered anymore than it already is, but because Roots of Creation deserve to have a fun, playful record. Besides, it seems RoC is more about sharing in these songs with their fans than playing them for their fans. The results are devilishly entertaining, and RoC has pulled off a restrained (they tend to like to get loud and fast, which I love) set of 13 cover songs.

Expectantly, they start off with “Fire On The Mountain” (a turn of phrase that can so easily conjure certain Rasta practices). The groove is driving, punctuated by a horn section, and then thankfully the band builds into a Dead/Roots mash-up style jam and guitar solo.

For “Deal” they launch into ska. For “He’s Gone” they revel in the an 80’s style with melodica. “Sugaree” is an uptempo, dubbed out version with floored sax. But three songs really steal the show:

“Casey Jones” soars on funky clavinet and a rolling bassline. The band stays close to the vibe of the original, a dance-able rollick, and lyrically an on-point song anyway, their version guest stars Dan Kelly from Fortunate Youth. Brett and Dan’s voices gel very well together, and the two add a soulfulness and grit to the lyrics that’s not in the original but totally befitting.

“Black Muddy River” is also great, showcasing the band’s slower, more meditative side, and, once again, the lyrics are almost meant for reggae music (and notably, one of the Dead’s most poetic undertakings). And to really accentuate the glory, this track features Melvin Seals.

Finally, they do an instrumental version of “Shakedown Street”. I’ve always loved RoC’s jam songs, those that are reggae infused but rocking and dubbed out, and just a tad psychedelic. They handle that mood here, relying on the horns to play the vocal melodies of the original, and they bounce from 70’s-sounding funk to 90’s-sounding jam to contemporary Cali-style rock steady.

Other guest stars include, Stephen Marley, G. Love, Marlon Asher, Jesse Wagner, and Hayley Jane. Other highlights include the cover art (detailed, thought-provoking, and sexy), and a track that’s singer Brett Wilson’s daughter asking for a moment of silence for Jerry Garcia.

Granted, I have a friend who may love music even more than I do, and his profound respect for the Grateful Dead caused him once to exclaim that covering the songs in another genre is nearly blasphemous. But I think differently: Dead songs are canonized. Some of their songs are folk preservation, and naturally, musicians will, in time, take their spin on the traditionals (think of how many jazz singers have recorded “Sunny Side of The Street”). A band as exploratory as Roots can pull off wonderful takes on these songs we know and love.

Production-wise, Errol Brown and Chris Gehringer deserve mad props for making the best-sounding Root of Creation album to date. The feel is warm, steady, and rich. And Brett Wilson’s voice is on. My hope is that the band can take this album’s feel, the quality of sound, and the attention to detail into their next set of originals, because they nailed it on Grateful Dub.

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Album review: Sammy Johnson “Sleepwalker”

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It’s absurd how inviting Sammy Johnson’s voice is. While I never got R&B (despite having deep respect for it), Sammy’s EP Sleepwalker fell into my speakers by way of his reggae mojo, but that’s not really the complete make-up of this album. The sound is much more about the soul and swing, no matter the genre. And the timelessness plops Sammy somewhere between Ray Charles and D’Angelo, especially because the majority of these songs are love songs.

This is my issue with Sleepwalker. Despite the sexiness and robustness of the instrumentation (tasteful and bright), the songs are nothing original. Certainly, there are moments. “Simmer Down” is such a rowdy blend of genres that it’s a miracle it works, and not only does it work, it’s voraciously catchy. But the content is savorless. “Come with me/ Let me take you for a ride/ You’re so sweet/ Show me all your sides,” it begins. Oh man, we can do better!

But Sammy’s Polynesian roots mix so heartily with the sound and vibe. If this song doesn’t end up on your Babymaking playlist, you’re missing out. Yet sometimes the sexy music is just the undercurrent for deeper meditations. “If You Only Knew” is lyrically on point. “Welcome to the life of the rich and famous/ A smile and wave/ keeps the bullshit away,” he croons. “You never know where you might go/ You never know what you might do.” This blazes over heady bass and backing vocals. Dallas Kacey- who I never heard of before and now love- offers a rap verse: “I’m only going to get it wrong once,” he beckons; “I try to play it cool.” Well, you’re winning that game, dude.

“These Eyes” brings back the one drop drums in pure fashion, even if the guitars welcome in tinges of Jazz and early rock n’ roll. Sadly, whenever Sammy attempts the all-too-difficult love song, he runs into the same errors most people do. But the vocal performance and production of the song is so old school that it just breathes, and all is forgiven. “I won’t let you go,” he sings; “Everyone knows you got a hold on me.” “Never Too Sweet” is shiny reggae pop that has some of the same flaws, like when Sammy yearns through, “Are we going to take this to the next level?” Yet, once again, the vibe is hot and the song overall veers just far enough away from cliché for it to earn its credit.

The title track is one of the best. “I spend my days in the studio,” he starts; “writing songs for people I don’t know.” This is perhaps his most vulnerable song. Long songs get too vague, but here Sammy’s pain and fatigue wrings out over the smooth reggae vibe. It’s a tasteful, humble song, and the EP’s best.

Listening to a truly strong, emotive voice is an experience, and Sammy Johnson has such an amazing way of singing that Sleepwalker survives off of this alone. And the band, even when presented with some fairly corny core principles, manages to stay organic and playful. Yes, this is a fun collection of what I’ll call “RR&B”, or rather, reggae riddims and blues.

Album review: Super Hi-Fi “Blue and White”

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Ezra Gale (bass) leads the all-star collective that is Super Hi-Fi through a full-length LP that mixes spot-on, hearty contemporary reggae with too much Brooklyn noisiness. Sometimes this album soars impeccably, while at certain moments it crumbles under the desire to be artistically new age. For one, several of the songs have vocals, and while the band is exceptional, even at low points, the lyrics can’t be carried by the melodies or voice. In an age where the caliber or reggae vocalists if extremely high- Blue and White quickly becomes a mixed bag.

“Keepin’ It Dirty”, “Gone”, “Blue And White”, and “Little Black Book” are exemplars of this juxtaposition. The vocal melodies and performances can’t hold up to the instrumentation. Do you remember The Gray Album? It was a mash-up of The Beatles and Jay Z and spawned a series of people mixing two incongruent artists. Blue and White feels like this, had one band been a high school punk band mixing on a tape deck in their garage and the other had been America’s greatest ska/rock steady band. May they were aware of this, hence the title being two colors (?).

Sometimes this combination works. “Space Needle” integrates metal into dub, ala Dub Trio. This is heavy, sensual, and fun. “Hole In My Life” is the album’s most bizarre song, but it works because its experimentation is explicit. It begins with utter noise and releases into a slender reggae groove. Jon Lipscomb can do a lot with his guitar, but here he best shows how withholding sometimes creates the widest success.

Alex Asher and Rick Parker share trombone duty. The double-down on horns offers an original sound. Madhu Siddappa (notably from Dub Is A Weapon) drums loosely, making for playful reggae with a bootleg Jazz ambiance. So, not surprisingly, Super Hi-Fi is at their best during dubs and jamming. This is the best way they let the city into the roots.

Granted, this is only my opinion. Many people, who I respect as musicians and critics, love experimental music. I, however, am admittedly a purest. Songs like “Gale Caution” is splendid ska. The murky trombone melody and the ripping organ and bass make for playfulness, and the noisiness is restrained to a few short measures before the groove kicks back in. This is what I wanted more of. This is Super Hi-Fi at their best and Blue and White breathes into this space too infrequently.