Monday in the Twin Cities was reggae music central. In addition to Ziggy Marley playing at the Minnesota Zoo, heavyweight Steel Pulse was booked at First Avenue with Tribal Seeds and Iya Terr. Much of their tour has featured Marley, Pulse and Tribal Seeds on the same bill. However, that line up would never have fit in the friendly confines of First Ave so they were split for the night.
In the wait prior to LA based Iya Terra’s 8pm start time, I was concerned about turn out. Not to worry. Five minutes before go time patrons began to stream through the door. Everyone migrated toward the stage. So even though the venue was only about half full when the screen lifted, the band was greeted by an eager crowd packed to the front.
Three things immediately struck me as Iya Terra launched into their 30 minute set. First, they were more rock guitar driven than most pure reggae bands. This was a twist I found refreshing. Second, these guys were damn good. Finally, despite a wealth of dreadlocks on stage the band was 80% white. (More on this later!) By the time they wrapped, they had the crowd in the palm of their hand and the dance party had commenced.
Tribal Seeds was a bit more traditional and was formed in 2005 in San Diego. This was a 6 piece band and as much as I enjoyed Iya Terra, this was a step up in terms of experience, depth and power. Although I was not familiar with these guys, most patrons certainly were and the energy level in the joint raised a clear notch.
As I reflected on how awesome the band sounded, a gentleman approached me. Never having been to First Avenue asked: “Is there another venue in town with a sound system as good as this one?” I rendered an opinion that this was still the state of the art, despite great systems in places like The Palace and Turf Club. He walked off shaking his head agreeing that things couldn’t possibly get much better. Couldn’t have agreed more.
That brief conversation got me paying attention to not only the band but how remarkable the sound coming from the stage was. It’s an art to be able to push north of 100 decibels, where the bass physically thumps you in the chest and yet your ears are not torched by a loss of frequency control. Not only does this allow one to fully appreciate a band as tight as Tribal Seeds, it is critical to getting people moving. The boys had the audience, now at near capacity, swaying and dancing with each song.
The Seeds are kind of a 3 headed monster with frontman founder Steven Jacobo sharing the front with Luis Castillo and Ryan Gonzo. Both individuals were given their own segments to lead. Where the opener tended to bring some rock sensibilities to the roots, Tribal Seeds tended to bring a bit more hip hop sensibilities to their sound.
The fact they’d been touring with Steel Pulse for awhile became apparent as Pulse’s sound engineer joined them for a song on keys. Immediately thereafter, Amlak “AmBASSador” Tafari, the Pulse bass player jumped on stage, grabbed a bass freeing up Vic Navarro his sole vocal performance.
Again it struck me that not one of the players in Tribal Seeds was Jamaican or African American. Another band of California dread-locked white dudes laying down some serious grooves. Except for Gonzo who I believe to be of Hispanic descent.
So I began contemplating the concept (and frequent flash point in our hyper sensitive world of political correctness) of cultural misappropriation. We have seen restaurants attacked in social media for being, say Chinese, when the owners were non Asians. Or sports teams for adopting a mascot that belongs to another culture. Even in music there was a period when people questioned the appropriateness of English lads playing the blues created by African Americans.
This led to wondering where one might draw that line on misappropriation or even if it should exist. After all, even the headliner, a 40 year reggae juggernaut sprung from Handsworth Boys school… in Birmingham, England. A locale even more removed from the music’s source than we are in Minneapolis! My conclusion was that the music should be allowed to speak for itself. Create it. Package it. Present it. If it brings people together and your audience enjoys it…Just Do It!
Bob Marley produced a landmark album titled Legend. But that term could be as easily applied to Steel Pulse; true heavyweight pioneers. The core of lead singer David Hinds and keyboard player Selwyn Brown have been together since the beginning. Bass player Tafari and drummer Wayne Elvis Clark have been around for 30 years. That familiarity is evident in all they do.
When the band hit the stage at 10:45 pm, a second wave of patrons seemed to flow through the doors. Many were in the process of completing a reggae double header by heading downtown after Ziggy Marley wrapped at the Zoo. The audience was pumped and primed. And Ladies and Gentlemen, that wasn’t a fog machine working from the floor. It smelled like a Rasta party.
How else to describe an 8 piece, 40 year, horn replete band, other than fully realized? The pacing was immaculate. The stylistic range impressive. Hops, jumps and dance steps choreographed into muscle memory. A swaying crowd singing lyrics back at the stage. That’s what happens when you’ve been at the top of the heap for a full generation.
Somewhere along the line I came to the conclusion that every reggae band on the planet deserves high quality horns. Thanks to saxes, trumpets, trombones and oboes there’s a power and smooth cruise to the Steel Pulse sound. And as with every band, things survive or fall on a rhythm section. Long time members Amlak Tafari and Wayne Elvis Clark set the dance beat.
Things really took off in the 5th song of the hour long set with a long jammed rendition of the classic Drug Squad from the 1980 album Caught You. This one incorporated everything: dance, multiple horns, drifts into Mary Poppins melodies and a pounding beat with call and response lyrics.
Shortly thereafter, the band steered the sound back to the middle of the reggae highway for the classic Not King James Version and the Haile Salassie t-shirt clad, Selwyn Brown led Babylon Makes The Rules.
There was little time for pontificating despite the activist history of Steel Pulse. They were charter members of the Rock Against Racism movement which dates back to London in the late 70’s. Yet Hinds did opt to gentley preach a bit as the band approached the home stretch. He asked if anyone in the house was from Ethiopia. A half dozen hands and shouts immediately went up. Hinds chuckled and shook his head. “That is what is so special about the United States. No other country is as cosmopolitan as you are. When friends back home ask me what it’s like in the US, I always tell them: ‘Never a dull moment. Never a dull moment!'”
Rather than take on a political system which must be anathema to nearly everything for which they have stood over the years, Hinds reflected about how we should prepare ourselves for a period of quiet boredom when the next presidential administration takes the reins of government. “Trust me. It will be like watching paint dry! Until that time, however, perhaps we can all stay home, cook up some popcorn and watch CNN or Fox. Because that’s become sheer entertainment.” He then invoked the tenants of Rock Against Racism and reminded us that it was 55 years ago today that Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. The band then launched into a spirited delivery of 2015’s Don’t Shoot, Hands Up.
The main set concluded with their classic Steppin’ Out. Nearly ten minutes of joy with Hinds chanting: Abracadabra! and the crowd roaring back: Catch me if you can! Off they walked. Sixty minutes on the dot. They returned with another audience favorite, Roller Skates which had everybody bopping to the choral response of “Life without music…I Can’t Go!”
And that’s what this Steel Pulse night was all about. Reminding us that music is not about pandering to a specific group or worrying about cultural misappropriation. Music is about building community. About promoting love and healing. Monday night brought together a remarkably diverse audience (despite a commonality based on bright colors and flip-flops) for a much appreciated dance party.