Picture a reggae fan. Got it? Odds are you’ve got one of two people in mind: a dreaded, rasta-wearing, herb-toking laid back islander or your modern college frat type. It’s an unfortunate stereotype, but a commonly held one. Now just do one more thing for me: throw that stereotype out the window, because the Easy Star concert last Wednesday didn’t conform to any of that. It was just a diverse group of people dancing and celebrating to some damn good music.
The show opened with a Georgia-based quartet called Passafire, who are celebrating their fifth album release despite looking like guys I went to college with. I’ll admit I had never heard of the band and didn’t quite know what to expect, but they surprised me with a fresh blend of reggae with some surprisingly heavy prog-rock inspired music breakdowns. I also appreciated the band’s rather unpretentious stage presence. Decked in frayed shorts and t-shirts, the guys seemed more interested in having fun with the music than with any rock star posturing. My lack of knowledge of the band’s songs made my notes pretty useless, but if I can judge on stage presence alone, Passafire gets high marks. There were shades of Sublime (which is probably said about any reggae band with a white lead man), but it was the heavy use of effects and unique time signatures that stood out (one concert goer called them “emo reggae”, which I think is a complement). They’ve clearly managed to find quite a following in the San Diego area, as their hour long opening set ended with chants for an encore. And they definitely made me want to check out more of their stuff.
But the reason I was there was for the legendary Easy Star All-Stars, and they did not disappoint. Playing for a by then packed crowd, the octet jumped right into “Airbag” off of Radiodread before transitioning to MJ’s instant party starter “Startin’ Something”. The horns killed the breaks, and keyboardist Elena brought some solid energy to the proceedings. That’s when I realized just how huge Easy Star’s Thrillah really is. Besides being an awesome album in its own right, the All-Star’s “Thrillah” offers the band a massive arsenal of instantly recognizable pop classics to light up the dance floor, something their previous concept albums covers didn’t quite have.
Elena was just one of five All-Stars to take a turn at the mic over the night, and it was the willingness to share the spotlight that really made the band stand out. Sure, there’s a time and place for your standard front-man, but for a genre so rooted in “one love”, seeing their camaraderie on stage just works better. It helps too that everyone on stage just oozed talent, from the deep grooves of the bassist to the steady rhythm of the guitarist and drums to the versatile vocalists.
While MJ dominated most of the night, the All-Stars still took time to hit classics from their earlier albums, including “Lovely Rita” and “With a Little Help from my Friends” from Sgt. Pepper, “Breathe” and “Time” from Dub Side, and “Karma Police” from Radiodread. I’ll admit I was a little sad not to hear “Paranoid Android”, but that may just be thanks to my insane love of OK Computer. The set was varied, balanced, and kept the energy up all night. And the dance floor got pretty crazy towards the end.
Especially whenever the MJ songs came back. “Beat It” was made for the saxophone/trombone horn duo, who crushed the main riff before leading the band into an impressive improvisational breakdown. “Thrillah” likewise stood out, partly for the unique arrangement and partly because of the reggae rap Vincent Price bridge. Classic. The highlight of the night was definitely “Billie Jean”, though, which was easily the group’s most spirited performance. And the crowd loved it, singing along with every word and getting the hell down.
Not every song was an upbeat dance-starter, however. The group was just as capable of handling the slower jams, like “Human Nature” and “The Girl is Mine”, and during a break, the guitarist even broke out a stripped-down, excellent one man cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”.
The set closer “Money” drew a ton of excitement from the Floyd-loving crowd (seriously, one person turned around a yelled “I FUCKING LOVE THIS SONG!” at me), and gave the group another avenue for a great improv break. Anyone who thinks the All-Stars are just a novelty cover band has never seen them in their zone. These songs are complete re-envisioning, handled by a team on the top of their musical game.
If you love reggae, or if you wanted to catch the Easy Star All-Stars in concert, there’s never been a better time than now. Their set’s as diverse as ever, and the extra dose of MJ turns an already great party into something really special. It was a night of good vibes, good tunes, and great dancing, and something any fan of the genre , or for that matter Michael Jackson or just good music, shouldn’t miss.
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