After more than two months of cancellations legendary reggae producer and dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry played five east coast dates last week ending at BB King’s Blues Club in midtown Manhattan. What could possibly be better on a warm, breezy, summer night in Babylon? Although you can’t see it over the lights of Times Square, somewhere the Lion of Judah is just peering over the western horizon at night, and after the long blight of winter, roots music is finally back in season.
Brooklyn natives Dub is a Weapon provided the soundscape.
Originally scheduled to coincide with Perry’s 70th birthday, on March 20, this is his first trip stateside in years. He’s from an old and endangered breed of great rasta storytellers, traveling solo, and hooking up along the way with new and innovative dub acts he’s helped influence over his illustrious career. His roots date back to the 50s, as a streetwise recording technician and talent scout at Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One, where he produced dozens of classic dance hall and ska tracks before reggae even had a name. It was there he helped discover a young band called The Wailers.
By the early 70s their collaborations became the birth of dub, a style of reggae eventually categorized by its laidback earthy rhythm tracks and offbeat skank with digital delay. It was a major turning point in reggae history.
At the time, Perry’s Black Ark Studios released scores of hits, rivaling Studio One, while running on simple equipment out of a shack in his backyard. His slight-of-hand recording technique and reggae voodoo magic helped metamorphosis the band into what Marley biographer Timothy White calls "a heavily rock-slanted unit that typified the best in early reggae exploration." The transition from a traditional upbeat ska sound to slower rocksteady and dub beats would mark the band’s biggest breakthrough to international stardom.
Bob saw ‘Scratch’ as a benevolent force of genius in those days. In White’s book Catch a Fire, Rita describes him as a paternal figure bringing balance to the creative forces between Bob, Peter and Bunny. When the band broke up in 1974, Perry introduced Bob to his own band, The Upsetters, and Aston ‘Familyman’ Barrett and brother Carlton became the new Wailers. Together they recorded numerous early compositions of classic Marley dub tracks like "Duppy Conqueror," "Mr. Brown, "Soul Rebel," "Kaya" and "Natural Mystic," along with plenty of others that he continues to revamp in his live shows.
"Kaya," "Small Axe" and "Exodus" all found their way into Perry’s repertory in Thursday night’s set along side his original, punky dub classics. Jams like "Secret Laboratory" and "Inspector Gadget" from his most recent album, were supported with time-honored classics like "Roastfish & Cornbread."
His career has been a turbulent one. He’s a man marked by eccentricity while hailed as a mad wizard of dub recording, an inventor and an innovator. He was heavily inspired by the sound and the attitude of British punk and psychedelic rock. His eclectic taste brought many foreign musical ideas to the island, and his outrageous style, in, and out of the studio, reflects his uncommon inspiration.
In 1980 Black Ark burned down, an incident shrouded in controversial circumstances over whether the old man had lost it and just cashed in his chips, or whether it was all just a big ganja-smoking accident, a common hazard in the hot Jamaica climate. It was probably a combination of factors. Perry had always said the place was cursed.
But the man’s eccentricities have never overshadowed his prolific creative output. His solo career is encapsulated in over 100 recordings and compilations spanning five decades, often with thirty plus tracks, or ‘dubs,’ on each, not to mention scores of collaborations with popular artists like The Beastie Boys and The Clash.
This latest excursion with Dub is a Weapon represents a melding of the old with the new, as dub reggae music expands well beyond its native roots to the bustling scenes from Baltimore to Boston where recent acts like Dub is a Weapon and Matisyahu are just some of the more high profile manifestations of the fertile landscape for roots music.
Weapon’s laid-back rhythm section is led by legendary reggae percussionist Larry McDonald, the young band’s elder statesman, with credits including Peter Tosh and Taj Mahal. Drums, congas, a funky bassline and skank rhythm guitar lay the reggae groundwork, spearheaded by Dave Hahn on lead guitar and dub machine.
Trombonist Buford O’Sullivan sits in on solo horn section. His early career was with big-band ska unit, The Scofflaws, on N.Y.C.’s Moon Records. Featuring tenor sax wildman Richard Brooks, the former cadre of incredibly talented sax players was backed up by Buford and a host of others.
With Dub is a Weapon, he’s top brass. His easy slide-horn fills, edgy solos and reminiscent rudeboy energy, are distinctly the most explosive element of the bands’s sound. His diversity of style on stage goes to prove it’s not about the horn it’s about the piper.
Throughout June they’ll be playing Tuesday nights at the Knitting Factory. As for Perry with his tricolor afro and funky personal effects, there’s no telling where he’ll end up next. Reggae has a pretty short list of legendary international celebrities, and you can always find him there. He currently resides in Europe where he’s happily married to his manager, Mireille Campbell, a wealthy Swiss heiress, and has lived with his two sons since the 80s.