Easy Star All-Stars reinvent classic Beatles album
ASPEN When Ras I-Ray was invited on-board the Easy Star All-Stars intriguing trip to reinvent classic-rock albums as reggae music he liked the concept. But he was more impressed by the talent: In Easy Star, he would be surrounded by musicians he had seen perform as part of Toots & the Maytals and Sister Carols band, along with saxophonist Jennifer Hill, an integral part of Burning Spears Burning Horns.When I was called to do this project and saw she was in it, I was amazed. I idolized this woman, said I-Ray from his home in Brooklyn. When I was coming up, I saw all these guys playing with the big acts.For most listeners, it has been the opposite: The concept of applying reggae to monumental rock albums is the main attention-getter. Only after they have been drawn in do fans recognize that behind the idea is exceptional musical talent. The first Easy Star All-Stars concept album 2003s Dub Side of the Moon, a reworking of Pink Floyds 1973 mega-classic Dark Side of the Moon has become a reggae classic in its own right not only because of the novel idea, but because the musicians and producers dug in deep and reimagined the work with originality and style. The band, comprising musicians associated with the New York City-based Easy Star Records label, has also become a touring force, playing internationally and appearing at such showcases as the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Tex. The band sold out their Belly Up date last February, and they return for another show Saturday night, with Joseph Israel opening.Thats the foundation of it we all come from reggae backgrounds, said I-Ray, the only member of the All-Stars to appear on every tour date thus far. Theres a legacy of reggae on stage, and thats why theres a legacy of reggae in the music.The group took a sharp turn in era, style and recognition-level for its second effort: 2006s Radiodread, based on the 1997 concept album OK Computer by Radiohead. But working with the originals odd time signatures and even odder production techniques, Easy Star came up with similar results: an acclaimed album, seemingly embraced by both reggae lovers and Radiohead fanatics. The album, featuring guest vocalists Toots Hibbert, Morgan Heritage and Israel Vibration, earned a three-star review from Rolling Stone, which dubbed it impressive, with the arrangements and instrumentation … thoughtfully considered.It one sense, it was all the same to I-Ray, who had as much familiarity with Radiohead as he had with Pink Floyd: essentially none. A New Orleans native, he grew up with funk and R&B. And though he knew about reggae Theres a big, big Jamaican population there; I may as well have been born on the island, he said I-Ray had no interest in the style until one day, at the age of 22, when he was serving in the military, the music struck him like a thunderbolt. For the past 20 years, the 47-year-old has devoted himself not only to reggae sounds, but the Rastafarian way of life. He even speaks with a Caribbean patois, but he didnt pick it up in Jamaica hes never been.People are amazed when I tell them that, said I-Ray, a spectacularly upbeat person who also tours frequently with another East Star Records band, the Meditations. But for me, Im saving the best for last. Theres a spiritual connection there, because I consider myself a Rastafarian. So Im saving that for a special occasion.I-Ray had deeper knowledge of the music that would serve as the source for the All-Stars third reconceptualization of a classic. April 14 will see the release of Easy Stars Lonely Hearts Dub Band, a Jamaican-accented reworking of the mother of all concept albums, the Beatles Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album features an expanded roster of noted guest singers, including Luciano, Steel Pulse, Matisyahu, and Michael Rose of Black Uhuru. I-Ray has a limited presence on the album he was touring with the Meditations when it was recorded but he is a central part of the band that will perform the material live. (The Lonely Hearts Dub Band songs were debuted live a few weeks ago in Moscow, and are making their U.S. premiere on the current Colorado tour.)The latest recording was a product of audience demand. With the momentum, the audience was asking, OK, whats next? The anticipation was there, I-Ray said. Sgt. Pepper came about out of, OK, what do you want to hear? Almost like an informal poll.But the source material also had to connect with the musicians. Dark Side of the Moon and OK Computer both had spiritual, or at least philosophical, underpinnings, and were deep meditations on life. Sgt. Peppers may be the Beatles most weighty material, but there are still moments of giddiness, not too far removed from the carefree, romance-happy songs the Fab Four had been making just three years earlier.I think for me, as a bassist and as a Rasta, I have to make it spiritual, said I-Ray. The original artist was inspired by something to write it. And that may have been dark. But I have to get into what motivated them.At the same time, I-Ray says it was vital not to change the essence of the original music. With some Sgt. Pepper songs that probably wasnt so difficult: With a Little Help From My Friends has not only been covered memorably by other artists, but seems to impart a very reggae-friendly point of view (especially, perhaps, the part about getting high). Same with the line from A Day in the Life: Id love to turn you on. But what to make of the seemingly nonsensical, circus-like Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite (whose lyrics were said to come right off a 19th-century poster), which has not a whiff of spirituality?I-Ray chuckles at the mention of the song. I have to sing it like I really mean it, he said. Someday, maybe, well be able to play that song without laughing. But I doubt it.On the whole, however, I-Ray didnt need to scratch too hard at the Beatles masterpiece to find meaning and inspiration.To be honest, the whole album resonates because of what it stands for, he said. Its got its vibe. No matter which song we did, it created the same vibe for the audience. Were just riding on what Sgt. Peppers already did. Each one of these songs becomes a spiritual trip, even if the lyrics are joking.The ultimate trick was striking a balance between respect for the original, and a fresh approach. Easy Star has been up to the task before, and has hit it again. Mr. Kite is freshened up with a newly scripted horn-and-rap break on Lonely Hearts Dub Band. The Indian vibe of George Harrisons Within You Without You is amplified, as is the songs trippiness, thanks to the mesmerizing vocal from the Hasidic reggae singer Matisyahu. A Day in the Life is done nearly straight-up, with Michael Roses vocal embellished by Jamaican accents in the beat. The lyric gets playful: Instead of dragging a comb across his head, the narrator runs his fingers through my dreads. The cellophane flowers in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds have changed from yellow and green to red, gold and green Rasta colors. (The band had to receive permission not only to record the project, but also to make changes to the lyrics.)I-Ray said Easy Star would play about 85 percent of the Lonely Hearts Dub Band material at the Aspen date. The show would also include material from Dub Side of the Moon and Radiodread. They havent finished exploring the songs, and the audience hasnt tired of the novelty.If we didnt, it would be problems in the house, he said.
Easy Star All-Stars, with Joseph Israel opening, perform at 10 p.m. Saturday, March 14, at Belly Up Aspen. Tickets are $22 in advance and $24 the day of the firstname.lastname@example.org
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