Xavier Rudd brings new band to Belly Up
The Aspen Times
If You Go …
What: Xavier Rudd & the United Nations
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Friday, June 5, 9 p.m.
Tickets: Belly Up box office; http://www.bellyupaspen.com
When Xavier Rudd played Snowmass Mammoth Festival last summer, he brought along a rhythm section to back him up on-stage – an unusual sight at a performance by the Australian, who has won a fervent global fanbase over the last dozen years with his dynamic, rootsy multi-instrumental solo performances.
Clearly, he didn’t mind sharing the spotlight and the sonic workload. Rudd is now touring with an eight-member band of world music all-stars. They play guitar, bass, drums, keys, horns, flute, saxophone and sing backup vocals. They hail from Australia, South Africa, Samoa, Germany and Papa New Guinea. And they’re aptly named The United Nations.
The global collective is featured on Rudd’s new roots reggae album, “Nanna.”
“Everyone comes with an interesting story and past and they bring that ancestral story into the music,” Rudd said from Australia before launching a three-continent world tour that runs through the fall and brings him and the new band to Belly Up tonight. “Everyone comes from a different place, a different culture – in a lot of cases there’s been a lot of struggle and all of that is brought to the table and discussed musically. It’s a powerful exchange that’s going on onstage spiritually as well. It’s really special. I feel honored to be part of it.”
This is Rudd’s “Graceland” moment, tapping into new musical textures and traditions with global collaborators on an ambitious, admirable new record.
The album opens with the anthemic, Marley-esque “Flag,” and grows in dimension as it progresses in songs that celebrate flavors of music from around the globe within its reggae context. As listeners have come to expect, Rudd writes mostly about environmental issues and spiritual matters on “Nanna,” scolding corporations for “spraying your chemical to increase your decimal” on “Halalei” and then, on “Sacred,” asking “Why are we so divided?”
If those are the problems on Rudd’s mind, the musical multiculturalism The United Nations represents and the welcoming sound it creates seems to be his answer.
Rudd said he’s always wanted to put together a big band of world musicians to make a reggae album, but didn’t want to rush it. He didn’t hold auditions for a band or even really put out a call for musicians, he said. Instead he recruited United Nations members steadily along the way and added musicians one by one.
“Once I put it out to the universe it just all came together organically,” he said.
Since his 2002 debut, “To Let,” the 37-year-old Australian has played mostly as a one-man band, taking the stage with a complex instrumental setup that’s worthy of Rube Goldberg: three didgeridoos, a slide guitar on his lap and more string instruments at his side, a stompbox at his feet, with drums, dobros, banjos, harmonicas and more within reach. Playing them all and singing, his sets quickly became must-see concerts when they came through town and won him a fervent worldwide fanbase, including a Colorado contingent that has packed his shows in recent years at Belly Up, Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival and the Mammoth Festival.
As he went it alone instrumentally, Rudd said, his vocals were little more than an afterthought. On “Nanna,” he shows more range and offers a reggae-friendly wail.
“On this record I actually had a chance to focus more on my vocal performance and telling the story,” he said. “And that’s been cool. It’s been nice to focus on that. I never really liked my voice that much, and I’m embracing it now. I’m playing with it a little more and giving it some attention.”
Before they went into the studio, Rudd and his new bandmates spent a lot of time recording and perfecting the songs on “Nanna.” Rudd didn’t want the album to have a studio session sound to it. The songs’ natural home is on the stage.
“It’s actually better live,” he said. “The comments I’ve gotten from people who’ve seen a lot of shows over the years have said this is hands down the best experience they’ve had. It’s the best experience I’ve had.”
The band has also worked up new arrangements of songs from his back catalogue.
Late in the making of “Nanna,” the record was given one of the ultimate blessings and validations a reggae record can receive. Errol Brown, the Jamaican recording engineer for Bob Marley & the Wailers, Peter Tosh and other legends, mixed the album at the Marleys’ Tuff Gong Studios.
“He got really into it,” said Rudd. “I thought it was done, and the next minute he’s sending me 10 more mixes of it. It was hard to keep up.”