Stirring it up in Aspen: Easy Star All-Stars reggaefy the classics
ASPEN – When Michael Goldwasser co-founded Easy Star records, his idea was to turn the clock back a bit for reggae, get to the essence of the style. By the mid-’90s, when the New York-based Easy Star was formed, reggae had become slicked up; digital production and the influence of gangsta rap had disconnected the music from its humble origins.”In Easy Star Records, we were trying to do traditional Jamaican style reggae. Like when reggae started in the ’70s in Jamaica – analog, old style, live drums, live musicians,” Goldwasser said from his home near the south shore of Long Island.So when Lem Oppenheimer, one of the partners in Easy Star, floated an idea that was hardly in line with the old-school thinking, Goldwasser flinched at first. Oppenheimer, a big fan of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” thought the epic 1973 album would make great source material for a reggae remake. Goldwasser, the only musician among the partners in Easy Star, was skeptical. But he was also thinking with his businessman’s cap on, realizing how potentially attractive such a project could be.”The thought never occurred to me to take a classic rock album and turn it into reggae,” Goldwasser said. “But we wanted to expand the reggae audience and include people who don’t listen to reggae, don’t buy reggae albums. We wanted to get people who didn’t drink the reggae Kool-Aid and make them converts.”Consider the Kool-Aid now consumed. “Dub Side of the Moon,” which reinvented Pink Floyd classics like “Money” and “Us and Them” as roots reggae and dub, has been on the reggae charts since its release in 2003. It also spawned a small industry: Easy Star was forced to form a touring band, the Easy Star All-Stars, to bring the music into clubs. So successful was the concept, it couldn’t end with one album; Easy Star followed “Dub Side of the Moon” with 2006’s “Radiodread,” a remake of Radiohead’s “OK Computer” and 2009’s “Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band,” both of which were extremely well-received. The touring band has became popular enough that it has toured on six continents.When Easy Star All-Stars return to Belly Up on Saturday, they will bring their latest batch of reggaefied material with them. A few weeks ago, the band released “Easy Star’s Thrillah,” a song-by-song reconstruction of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the best-selling album ever. The album features a slowed-down, bass-heavy take on “Billie Jean,” featuring singer Luciano; a funky “Beat It,” with Michael Rose; and an easygoing, romantic “The Girl Is Mine” with Mojo Morgan and Steel Pulse.Goldwasser notes that “Thrillah” is a departure from past Easy Star All-Stars recordings. Unlike “Dark Side,” “OK Computer” and “Sergeant Pepper’s,” “Thriller” wasn’t rock music, and it wasn’t a concept album. Perhaps most important, Michael Jackson’s album was already dance music.”My challenge as an arranger and producer was how to make it dance music in a different way. Reggae has a different vibe than r&b, r&b-pop,” Goldwasser said. “So this switches things up a little, and acknowledges the important role that American r&b has had on Jamaican reggae, and still has. Current dancehall still references r&b. American reggae bands like Rebolution – which is the most popular American reggae band right now – or Souljah or the Green might not know this strong connection. I want them to explore it and understand it.”Given how widespread the practice of reinventing someone else’s music is these days – look at the number of remakes and remixes; look how many tribute shows are on the Belly Up calendar – it could be said that Oppenheimer’s original idea was the real star behind Easy Star All-Stars. But that would overlook the musical achievement of “Dub Side,” “Thrillah” and the rest – how imaginatively it is conceived, how meticulously it is put together. It’s possible that if the albums were not so well-made, the thought of turning “Dark Side of the Moon” into reggae would have been ridiculed rather than celebrated.Goldwasser, who co-produced “Dub Side” and has produced the rest of the albums, spends months listening to the original material, “with my producer’s cap on, with my arranger’s cap on. I analyze each song and work out a pretty detailed arrangement,” he said, adding that the time spent on the recordings prevents him from touring with Easy Star All-Stars. (He performs with the band when it’s geographically convenient.) When the band gets in the studio, Goldwasser helps inject an element of spontaneity by doing live mixing of the tracks. “That’s a big part of the sound, especially with the dub elements. It’s kind of a performance. I mix everything live. It’s not automated, not programmed – that’s part of the sound.”To Goldwasser, the original idea could have been much less of a challenge if Oppenheimer had proposed covering a band rather than a complete album – selections of Pink Floyd, rather than Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.””The idea of taking an entire album and spending a ton of time, money and effort to make it a new piece of art on its own – that’s a daunting task,” Goldwasser said. “A greatest hits tribute would be easier – you wouldn’t need a flow, no sense of an album. There are a lot of limitations. But I welcome the challenge.”Goldwasser has another challenge in mind for Easy Star All-Stars.”My whole life I’ve been a jazz fan,” he said. “I’d love to one day do a reinterpretation of a classic jazz album. Don’t know if there’s much commercial potential there.”email@example.com
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