Easy Star All-Stars bring their reggae interpretations to Belly Up Aspen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” Michael Goldwasser knew right off the bat that he was playing to a fanatically critical audience. If he was going to mess with Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” ” which spent a record 741 weeks on the Billboard 200 charts (that’s 14 years!), and which Rolling Stone named the 43rd greatest album of all time ” he’d better do it right.
“We knew that Pink Floyd fans, like fans of different artists, hold the music close to their hearts, and take it seriously,” said Goldwasser, from his home in his native Queens, N.Y. “So we knew there’d be criticism: ‘How could you touch that sacred cow that is “Dark Side of the Moon?”‘ Because some people would see it as literally sacrilegious.”
What Goldwasser specifically intended to do with his band, the New York-based Easy Star All-Stars” take classic rock ‘n’ roll and give it a Jamaican twist ” has a long history. In 2004, Trojan Records released a three-CD compilation, “Trojan Beatles,” that compiled recordings, dating to the ’60s, of Beatles tunes by Jamaican artists. Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and Jimmy Buffett have all had full-album tributes of their songs, reggaefied; next week, that list expands with the release of “Spirits in the Material World,” a tribute to the Police that features Jamaican singers Gregory Isaacs, Toots Hibbert and Lee “Scratch” Perry. Those represent just the most ambitious efforts; for decades, it has been customary for American and British hits to be reinterpreted in reggae ” or ska ” style. “If a song was really popular, it was going to be reinterpreted,” noted Goldwasser.
To Goldwasser’s ears, there has also been a tradition of not doing these interpretations particularly well. Listen to “Fire on the Mountain: Reggae Celebrates the Grateful Dead,” or “Is It Rolling Bob?” a tribute to the songs of Dylan, and the music is good enough, but sounds more like a singer having a good time ” or, more so, a producer figuring he can make an easy buck ” than serious effort. There is little sense of the artists digging into and exploring the material, determined to reinvent it. Which is why you would get each singer doing one song, rather than taking on the challenge of an entire album.
“I never felt they took it seriously enough,” said Goldwasser, a guitarist and keyboardist who is credited as co-producer ” with his bandmate Victor “Ticklah” Axelrod ” of “Dub Side of the Moon.” “It was just slapping a reggae beat on it. And that’s the antithesis of reggae, which is serious, meaningful music. I wanted to do this right, spend time with it.
“It’s a big job to do something like this and make it great. But it’s not impossible.”
Goldwasser and his crew swung big, and came up big. Like Pink Floyd’s original, “Dub Side of the Moon,” released in 2003, is spacey and exploratory and takes chances. Like the source material, it sounds fresh. The arrangements, like a vocal break by Ranking Joe in the classic “Time” that takes the music places Pink Floyd never would have imagined, are bold. Mixing roots and dub styles of reggae, and featuring such Jamaican artists as Frankie Paul and the Meditations, the album has sold in six figures, a huge number for Easy Star Records, the label Goldwasser founded in the mid-’90s. The album has earned mostly raves, and Goldwasser says that “even the Pink Floyd fans recognize that we put our time into it.”
Goldwasser says that one of the keys to the warm reception was that the Easy Star All-Stars tread a middle ground between respect for the original material, and respect for the spirit of the original, which was wild experimentation. “You can be respectful and creative at the same time,” he said. “We could have made a crazy dub extravaganza, but would have lost a lot of the vocals, which were important to the original.”
Such a success came with its own challenge, namely, a follow-up. This time, there was not only pressure on them to make good music, but also to choose a worthy title to cover. “We knew people would lambaste us if we choose something too obvious, or too obscure. But I don’t think anyone would have predicted we’d choose Radiohead,” said Goldwasser.
The ultimate selection ” “OK Computer,” Radiohead’s 1997 breakthrough ” had much in common with “Dark Side of the Moon.” Both are acclaimed by critics and successful on a mass scale. Both are by English bands; both are ambitious, artistic and infused with strong thematic material.
But they are from different eras. And “Dark Side,” a staple of the classic rock format, is far better known to the general public than “OK Computer.” Musically, the Radiohead album is more challenging, drawing on many influences.
For Goldwasser, the two most important shared traits is that they were ahead of the curve in their sound, and they took on important ideas.
“I thought both were great in terms of being progressive and taking chances and not making the music that people necessarily wanted to hear,” he said. “And both are very dark, which works great for reggae. A lot of people think of reggae as party music, something to listen to on vacation. But there’s a lot of minor key, heavy stuff, about social issues.”
Buoyed by the success of “Dub Side,” the Easy Star All-Stars were able to put more money into “Radiodread.” Most of that was spent on attracting more big-name reggae singers: Morgan Heritage, Toots Hibbert and Horace Andy make appearances on the later album.
The format and approach to first album is similar. “The basic idea is the same: take some music and reinterpret it as reggae,” said Goldwasser, who was the sole producer of “Radiodread.” But he adds that the band had to handle the music differently. “Radiohead’s was a more dense album, more complex. There was more thought that had to be put into it.” “Radiodread,” then, doesn’t sound like “Dub Side, Vol. II.”
Goldwasser took up guitar at 13, and by 15 he was playing in clubs. The bands he was in played a variety of music, but reggae had always been a favorite. “In high school, some older, cool kids were into reggae, and the ska scene was very big, the authentic ska stuff,” he said.
Goldwasser and three associates formed Easy Star Records in 1996 to pursue their interest in reggae. The label has released albums by the American, Boston-based roots reggae band John Brown’s Body, and Jamaican singer Sugar Minott.
Now, Goldwasser is feeling a bit pinned down by the success of the Easy Star’s recent albums. The Easy Star All-Stars are at work on an EP of original material, but Goldwasser doesn’t know if it is worth the trouble and cost to make a full-length CD of their own songs.
“It’s hard to put out anything except what you know will sell well,” said Goldwasser, who will not be present when the Easy Star All-Stars perform Friday at Belly Up Aspen. (A family man, he stopped touring after the first “Dub Side” tour.) “I’d love to put out an album of my own stuff, but I’m not going to do it. It would probably lose money.”
While that is a sad reality of the music business, Goldwasser says he is more chagrined by what he sees as the lack of vitality in music itself. “I’m more disappointed in the lack of good music being made than I am in the fact that I have to do cover albums,” he said. I’d be happy if there were more cover albums that were good.”
Chances are, if they get made, Goldwasser and the Easy Star All-Stars will be the ones behind it. Instead, he is focused on making the next tribute album, the identity of which he won’t reveal. He is working currently working on the arrangements, and is looking at a release in early 2009. Someday, he hopes to get around to other projects that aren’t Jamaican remakes of classic rock albums. But that is well off in the future.
“Because of ‘Dub Side’ and ‘Radiodread,’ I’m forced to do reggae for the rest of my life,” said Goldwasser.
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