(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Concert review - Easy Star All-Stars with Passafire

13 September 2012 (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)

The Fox Theatre built up a good crowd. The all-ages show had a strong youth contingent that seemed to know both bands very well. There were a lot of the same people I see when the Flobots play.

I wasn't familiar with Passafire before this show. Based on the band name, I expected a solid reggae groove. That would have been welcome, but Passafire's sound turned out to be much richer than that.

Their music followed the jam band path of Phish, Widespread Panic and others. Songs skipped across genres, melding a hard rock solo into a ska groove or merging a Zappa-esque experimental sound into a reggae rock groove. Sharp rhythm and tempo changes signaled the song section boundaries, as well. Unlike those other bands, though, the songs didn't melt into a long running mass. That kept their set tighter with a stronger punch, even when they drifted into a spacier zone. The other difference is that Passafire seemed to center on reggae and ska beats as their natural foundation. At the time, I thought they might have been tailoring their set to fit better with Easy Star All-Stars. But after tracking down more of their music today, I can hear how central those rhythms are to their sound.

All four players were adept at changing up their approach to fit the sound in the moment. The band tours constantly and that showed in their performance. Bass player Will Kubley was particularly impressive. His playing on the reggae sections provided the solid anchor the style calls for, but he could also bounce it into a bubbly groove. His extended intro solo on Kilo had a laid back virtuosity.

Guitarist Ted Browne dominated the stage, driving most of the lead vocals. He favored a heavy echo on his voice that fit well with Kubley's close harmonies. His guitar was tasteful. He had plenty of chances to show off some flash technique, but he generally reined that in to support the song. His soft-spoken laid back persona was forward enough that he wasn't shy.

Mike DeGuzman keyboard accents were fine, but he really stood out for the stunt touches: strapping on a guitar to contribute 30 seconds of glory or whipping out a Roland keytar (it looked like a Lucina) to step to the stage front. The theatrical moves worked; the whole band had a good stage energy.

There were a lot of great songs and I'll have to track down more of Passafire's music. Along with the rest of the crowds, one of my favorite songs was Dimming Sky. The old school R&B start shifts into an uptempo ska beat backing a lazy vocal. "Other fish go swimming by, they say good night / And I wish the dimming sky would stay so bright".

It's been three and a half years since I last saw Easy Star All-Stars, but it still stands out as an amazing show that made my top five of 2009. After reviewing Thrilla, their new tribute to Michael Jackson's Thriller, I had unreasonably high hopes for this tour because Jackson's music would kick up the pop energy for the show. Even so, Easy Star All-Stars exceeded my expectations, delivering a well rounded show: high energy jams, sweet reggae grooves, spacy dub excursions, and sentimental moments.

The band started the show with a vamp build into their lazily drifting version Radiohead's Airbag. That got the audience moving but they really woke up when the band followed up with Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'.

The setlist was nicely constructed to take the crowd through the history of the band's work. They hit the high points and kept the flow moving. The new album, Thrillah, was well represented, while there were only a couple of tunes from Easy Star's Lonely Hearts Dub Band. The Pink Floyd section, with Breathe and Time was a treat. The dynamic shift from a trippy, reflective mood to heavy rhythm focus and then Ruff Scott's exciting rap delivery made it a long adventure ride. This segment rolled perfectly into the dark and moody sound of Radiohead's Lucky. With perfect timing, the All-Stars lightened the vibe with an a capella singalong start to With A Little Help From My Friends.

Like the setlist, the band's roles were also well balanced. Kirsty Rock and Ruff Scott were like sweet and spicy. Rock's sassy attitude and strong pop voice were perfect for tunes like P.Y.T. and Thriller. Scott's raspy growl and toasting style was a strong, earthy counterpoint. He was a charismatic performer, too, owning the front edge of the stage as he challenged people to sing along or exhorted them with his rap. His riff on Money was strong and he also covered DJ Spragga Benz's spoken word part from Thriller.

Guitarist Shelton Garner Jr was a solid player, able to shift from chank to serious rock solo work with ease. But his singing was a real treat. On The Girl is Mine, he had a strong R&B sound that gave a hint of Michael Jackson, but with a deeper tone. His real moment to shine, though, was the encore. He came out alone and performed a solo arrangement of Bob Marley's Redemption Song. The guitar arrangement had a light Hendrix chord melody touch, but his voice was strong and soulful. It was a truly moving moment. The last notes hung in the air before the rest of the band stepped up to continue the encore.

Bass player Ras I Ray, though, was the true heart and soul of the band. Like a ringmaster, he was at the center of it all. His playing was phenomenal: fluid and melodic, then throbbing and deep, whatever the moment called for. Through it all, he kept in constant motion. One moment, he'd march in place, crouched down in a power stance. Soon after, he'd grin infectiously and dance with joyous energy. His presence and charisma anchored the band. Even his stage patter had a confident humility that showed off the band's open spirit.

Easy Star All-Stars throw an amazing concert. Without an ounce of drag or waste, they still create a loose party atmosphere. They take these incredibly well-known songs and rebuild them to create a truly original sound. They show off their phenomenal musical talent and still seem more interested in making a connection with the people at their shows. I only regret that I couldn't see their other two shows in the area this tour.

More photos on my Flickr.

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