Michael Kuelker's Posts


Michael Kuelker's Photo I'm a veteran KDHX programmer and co-host (with Professor Skank) of Positive Vibrations, every Saturday at 9 p.m. Central. Be sure to visit Reggaestlouis.net for even more reggae 411.

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Keith Porter & the Itals In This Time: previewing the Aug. 21 show at BB’s

Keith Porter - "Ital is vital."

by Michael Kuelker

It’s 2013 and so much has changed in roots reggae music, but some things remain the same: The Itals mashing it up in St. Louis.

Keith Porter, lead singer and prime mover of The Itals, returns for a performance at BB’s Jazz Blues & Soups on Wednesday, August 21. Porter will be backed by Yard Squad of St. Louis, and his hand-picked backing vocalists will be St. Louis’ own Irie Trinity – Sherita Edwards, Desirae Dobbins and Franny Taylor.

Sav-la-Mar, Jamaica native Porter headlines, but the St. Louis-based artists behind him and on the undercard are well worth the trod on their own terms: Aaron Kamm & the One Drops, Mario Pascal, Konchus and in a separate opening set, Irie Trinity, who are also producing the BB’s concert.

Longtime reggae fans know that The Itals’ relationship with St. Louis stretches back more than 30 years, when the St. Louis-based Nighthawk label began working with three singers from Sav-la-Mar on Jamaica’s southwest coast. Since forming in 1976, Nighthawk had released 10 blues reissues but in the late seventies it delved into reggae-Jamaica. Wiser Dread, the first Nighthawk reggae release (1981), was a potent various artists anthology which contained The Itals’ “In a Disya Time” and “Don’t Wake the Lion.” The Itals would soon be Nighthawk’s flagship artist. New original reggae would quickly eclipse pre-WWII blues as the label’s focus.

It bears noting that Yard Squad and Irie Trinity are singers and players of instruments whose talents have been tapped recently by a host of artists including Zion, Everton Blender, Frankie Paul, Kenyatta ‘Culture’ Hill and Warrior King. Yard Squad backed Porter for a series of dates in spring 2013 and he called again for shows this month in Missouri, Texas and Louisiana. In September Dobbins will fly to Phoenix, Arizona to do a solo set on a bill with roots legend Don Carlos. An Irie Trinity album is in the works.

And how about the other talents on this bill and the fine music they are making for any ear which will hear. Aaron Kamm & the One Drops are among the region’s hardest working and most popular jam bands, playing the reggae in a very satisfying post-Sublime; AK1D’s music is also very blues-infused and ultimately quite original. Mario Pascal plays original compositions, too, a reggae/world fusion. His 2012 song “Stand Ya Ground” gets a lot of airplay on my radio show because it’s topical and timeless – it definitely pertains to the Trayvon Martin case but it’s ultimately about more than perpetrator/victim; it’s about consciousness itself and how we educate ourselves. Mario Pascal is building a catalog of noteworthy songs. The only one in the mix I haven’t yet seen perform is Konchus.

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Justin Hinds: Postcards from the Idren

1950s postcard of the Jamaica Hilton on the island's north coast

by Michael Kuelker

Independence for Jamaica arrived on August 6, 1962. The island’s music industry then was in its infant bloom, and a new original music called ska was moving the youth. Sometime in the autumn of 1962, a young man made the journey from his little north coast village home to the sprawling capital city of Kingston to cut a record, “Carry Go Bring Come.” It became a ska sensation, and the tune set in motion a recording career for Justin Hinds (1942-2005) not only in ska but also in rocksteady, reggae and nyahbinghi, producing a musical legacy which brought Hinds wide renown.

In Steer Town, where Justin lived all of his life and where many of his family and friends remain, his memory remains as strong as a phantom limb.

This is a special artist to me. I listen to Justin’s music at home and jam it on “Positive Vibrations,” and the three occasions in the late 1990s when I saw Justin and his fabulous band perform in St. Louis are among my top-shelf reggae experiences. I’ve trod to Steer Town twice and spoken to many of Justin’s musical compatriots and family. Below, you’ll find excerpts from 11 of them.

A year ago, I found a new angle of vision to Justin’s depth and timelessness when I participated in a symposium in Jamaica titled “Justin Hinds @ 70.”

The St. Ann Heritage Foundation staged the symposium on the long wide verandah of the Seville Great House in St. Ann’s Bay. Across an expansive lawn, the Caribbean Sea is in full view. The venue is not far from Steer Town in the parish of St. Ann, a place rife with cultural history and famous sons (Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley and Burning Spear – and Justin Hinds, who deserves mention in the same breath).

The August 5, 2012 symposium coincided with celebrations island-wide of Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of independence. Outside our mellow gathering, the island was feting itself loudly and inna fine style, flags flying high. The same afternoon, one of the biggest television events of the year was taking place: Jamaican Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt racing in London. Given the near-synchronous Olympic dash and the start of the symposium, some of us were left wondering whether anyone would show at all. But 50 people attended and lingered for both the program and informal chat-and-jam time.

 

Justin Hinds in 1999 in St. Louis (photo by Michael Kuelker)

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‘Whenever it comes to song writing, my second line is always the most important’: An Interview with Taj Weekes

Photo courtesy of Jatta Records

by Michael Kuelker

St. Lucian reggae artist Taj Weekes and his band Adowa return to St. Louis with a performance on Saturday, June 15 at 2720. KDHX’s Mr Roots will be spinning tunes that evening, too. Mr Weekes is one of the most compelling and original artists in roots reggae today, and I spoke to him by telephone on May 28, 2013.

KUELKER: Your new live album, Pariah in Transit [Jatta Records 2013], is a remarkable piece of work [reviewed here].  And it feels like a capstone on this first phase of your career, encompassing seven or eight years and three studio albums. One wonders, then, what comes next?

WEEKES: You said exactly what it is, the live album captured the last three. So we have moved on past that. What I am thinking of doing for [the next] album is a different studio. I produced everything on the last four albums so I would like to let somebody else come in and let them direct a little bit. Just a different vibe. I’ve done the last four albums, I have produced every one, it’s been my point of view. I would like to alternate points of view on the next album, so we can move into a different phase – not too different, still me and the band. And the idea is to bring other guest musicians in. It will still be roots but we’re gonna tweak it a little bit.

One of the strongest tracks on Pariah is a brand new composition, “Jordan,” and I wanted to ask you about the inspiration behind it.

‘Jordan’ is a song I made up on the spot. We had played some venue someplace and they had some issues with the equipment, so by the time the equipment came, the show was 45 minutes late and it wasn’t our fault. I pride myself on always being early, and we were as usual. When the show was done – when I thought the show was done – the promoter asked if we could play for an additional 45 minutes. But I had played for over two and a half hours and I had run through all the songs that I wanted to play that I thought were appropriate for the setting. So I just said to the guys, ‘hold two chords and follow me and we’ll do something with it.’ So I held two chords, the brothers followed me and ‘Jordan’ came out.

After it came out and I sang it a few times as I liked it. I recorded the song on my phone, and it’s become a staple ever since.

 

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Taj Weekes – PARIAH IN TRANSIT in review

by Michael Kuelker

From the Caribbean island of St. Lucia comes a package marked “reggae music 501(c)3.” It looks deceptively like a compact disc but it’s really a set of boxes one inside the other inside the other, each opening up to a facet of reggae culture.

Pariah in Transit is the new live album by singer/guitarist/bandleader Taj Weekes, who is directing the proceeds from the project to a registered humanitarian organization, They Often Cry Outreach, which he founded in 2007. TOCO promotes health and sports among disadvantaged youth among its many projects in a wide range of community building efforts.

Weekes, by the way, will be returning to St. Louis on June 15 for a concert at 2720.

I’ve listened closely to the artist’s three studio albums and to his band on three occasions (@La Onda and 2720). As a songwriter he is, I think, among reggae’s finest, a penetrating poet who is averse to easy rhyme, platitude and simple didacticism. And his band – remarkably cohesive, tight like a sunburned forehead.

Still, I am not automatically turned on by live albums. Even when it’s artists who are really good live, Marley, the Clash or Howlin’ Wolf, whomever, my go-to selections wind up being an artist’s studio recordings (and usually early or mid-career). Live albums are souvenirs, documents of a time, faithful to a sound (usually), wonderful to behold (sometimes), but in my collection only occasionally at the ‘igher ights. This disc by Weekes definitely skews to the high end of the live album spectrum.

Concise and compelling intro to the artist, Pariah in Transit is crisply recorded sans overdub, a lesson in band dynamics and tasteful restraint, the music coming like good reggae should, light like a feather and heavy as lead.

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Taj Weekes @ 2720 [photo by Michael Kuelker

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The English Beat’s Dave Wakeling Takes Us There (to the late 70s UK)

by Michael Kuelker

Let’s raise a pint and toast The English Beat. They’re back! And in advance of the concert on Wednesday, March 20 at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room, co-founder/bandleader Dave Wakeling spoke to me for an interview that I used in last Saturday’s “Positive Vibrations,” which can be heard (like all KDHX programming) for up to two weeks.

Formed in Birmingham, England in 1978, The Beat (as they are known outside of the USA) were among the shining lights of the 2 Tone movement, which blended ska, reggae-rock, punk and rebel consciousness. Lyrically conscious and danceable, the songs hold up well lo, these three decades later, something Wakeling attributes to a savvy producer who wanted a bedrock sound.

The band issued three studio albums before dissolving in 1983. Wakeling and bandmate Ranking Roger then went on to form General Public, cutting three albums and scoring large on the pop charts. Some of those numbers will surely appear in the setlist Wednesday night, and in my conversation last week, Wakeling took me back to a catch-a-fire moment of one of the biggest of those General Public hits …

From “Liquidator” to “I’ll Take You There”

In the nineties, General Public unveiled one of the great ideas in pop music of the time: “I’ll Take You There,” a brilliant melding of the Jamaican instrumental “Liquidator” by Harry J All Stars with the gospel/soul of “I’ll Take You There” by The Staple Singers. With a punched up tempo, crisp horn line, Wakeling’s keening vocal and Ranking Roger’s spot-on Jamaican toasting, the song was galvanizing and ubiquitous.

The musical DNA behind GP’s “I’ll Take You There” runs back to a pleasant if ordinary reggae pop song in 1969 by Tony Scott called “What Am I to Do.” The producer, Harry Johnson, used the bassline for “Liquidator” credited to Harry J All Stars the same year and then bam! The latter swiftly became part of the collective consciousness among listeners of Jamaican music, including those in the Jamaican diaspora in England.

Tunes such as “Liquidator” were part of Wakeling’s very coming-of-age.

“Skinheads went to soccer games, you know, football games in England, and they figured that a good way to keep them quiet, or quieter at least, was to play skinhead reggae before the game. West Brom, a Birmingham team, used to come onto the field and their theme song at the time was ‘Liquidator’ by Harry J & the All Stars, which was really the basis for the song ‘I’ll Take You There,’ which we covered in the nineties. We mixed up the two songs.

“That’s where I first heard it. It struck me as a rare combination of being happy and blue at the same time. Something really strong about it. I realized afterward that the music’s trying to cheer yourself up during times of deprivation so there was a streak of survival that ran through it. It was not being cheery for jollity’s sake. It was perhaps dinner music instead of dinner, not music for after dinner.

“It moved me from the first time I ever heard it, really, and it combined with my early teenage years, which is your usual first nervous expeditions toward girls, in my case skinhead girls. And so that music meant an awful lot to me because it was wrapped up in my early fumblings, early slappings, early humiliations, that sort of thing. So it was a very potent music for me in many ways.”

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Ozark Mountain Daredevils: a concert preview, an historical overview & a bit of personal piffle

by Michael Kuelker

VP Fair – July 2, 1981.  The Ozark Mountain Daredevils are performing beneath the Arch on a sunny afternoon, and I am on an outing with my parents and younger sister, witness to the effects upon the masses of music, the natural elements and holiday weekend espirit.  The set-closing “If You Wanna Get to Heaven” has the place electrified.  Among the dancers catching my eye is a hairy hippie who holds his toddler as an air guitar, bouncing the kid and jamming away through the song.  Both are grinning.

And thinking about it now, so am I.

Having been turned on to the Daredevils by my high school buddies on a float trip, I had the band’s records, knew their story and was finally getting to see them for the first time.  When you are 17, every rock and roll event is school.  My concert experience had been brief but rewarding, the late seventies middle American rock and roll dream, which is to say Aerosmith, Kiss, Black Sabbath, Sammy Hagar, Springsteen, Nugent, UFO, Molly Hatchet and The Who.  But I had never been to an open-air daytime show before, and this one had the audience in a fizzy froth.  The Daredevils’ albums were the mellowest in my collection – I didn’t know till then they could deliver such a rock and roll power surge.

There are two things to say about it now.  One, the fair in those years really was the bomb – Ella Fitzgerald, Loretta Lynn and Atlanta Rhythm Section also occupied the mainstage in ’81.  And two, the Dares are coming back.

The Daredevils return to the Argosy Casino in Alton, Il, for performances on March 8 and 9.  Both shows are sold out.  Springfield, Missouri’s hillbillies with harmonies, celebrating the 40-year anniversary of their stunning debut, the self-titled “quilt album,” are these days doing limited numbers of intimate shows.

Back cover to the 1973 debut by Ozark Mountain Daredevils

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David Katz speaks to Michael Kuelker about his new biography of reggae icon Jimmy Cliff

It is 1962. Jamaica becomes an independent nation and a new pop music is being invented: ska.

Jimmy Cliff is there – young, fresh, making hits, something that he will continue to do. For fifty years and counting.

It is now 2013. Jimmy Cliff is still here. He has a new album, Rebirth, and sounds as vitalizing as ever. He is also recently the subject of a thorough, concise biography by reggae historian David Katz. In Jimmy Cliff: An Unauthorized Biography (Interlink 2012) Katz compellingly narrates the artist’s journeys across the world and his fascinating musical trajectories.

Katz’s biography is an absorbing chronicle Cliff’s life and career, and he spoke to me recently from his home in London.  Let me set up the interview with a gloss of what we’re dealing with in the life of Jimmy Cliff. (On “Positive Vibrations” this Saturday, January 19 (9-11 p.m.), starting in the second hour I’ll devote programming to Jimmy Cliff music and interview clips with David Katz.)

Jimmy Cliff has been consistent and popular for so long that it’s easy to overlook his truly humble beginnings. Born James Chambers in 1948 in the parish of St. James in Jamaica, he grew up in a poor community. But he had a golden voice that got pressed to wax as early as 1962 with songs like “Hurricane Hattie” and “King of Kings” for producer Leslie Kong. Cliff was officially an international artist as early as 1964, when two of his ska tunes were included on This is Jamaican Ska, an anthology for Epic Records in the US. Soon after Cliff went to England and cut some records, singing R&B/soul as well as reggae, scoring with songs such as “Wonderful World Beautiful People” in 1969. A versatile singer, Cliff’s greatest success would be in reggae, and soon he would become an icon.

 

Jimmy Cliff performing in Austria 2012 in a public domain photo by Emil Goldberg

 

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TAJ WEEKES & ADOWA: Radically Roots

Taj Weekes in Paris in 2011 - photo courtesy of the artist

For Rastafari-inspired roots reggae, Taj Weekes is among the very best we have. The St. Lucian-born artist’s three albums in the last seven years brim with distinctive lyrics and musicianship, and like all great art, one gets deeper into life through the music rather than escape.

He and his band Adowa perform at 2720 on Wednesday, July 18. And for an all-killer/no filler show, St. Louis’ Mario Pascal plays the opening set. It’s a contender for roots reggae concert of the year.

Born and raised in St. Lucia, now a resident of New York City, the singer/guitarist has a small but impressive body of work. From Hope and Doubt (2005) to Deidem (2008) and A Waterlogged Soul Kitchen (2010), Weekes has set his sights on the most pressing issues of the day through keening vocals, disarming lyrics and potent one drop riddims.

Weekes is a walking, singing and ideologically seamless blend of music, spirituality, activism and 501©3-certified progressive works.

To say that Weekes takes on dread topics like terrorism, environmental destruction and genocide makes him sound like an ambulance chaser, only worse. But as a Caribbean folk artist and as socially conscious Rastafarian, Weekes is following in a long and honorable tradition of making society the focus of art.

“People are really moved by what it is we are saying,” Weekes told me in a phone call in early July. “The thing of it is, I say as an artist, our sole job is to be a town crier, to bring to light things that people may not think about as much or things that people may not have heard about.

“Whether it be what happened in New Orleans or the earthquake in Chile or the earthquake in Haiti or what happened in Japan, we need to bring it out. I mean, with commercial radio and corporate media, all they tell us about is who killed Frankie’s girl on the corner or everything that doesn’t concern us. So it is my responsibility to let the people know what is happening, and maybe we can respond accordingly.

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