Beach Ball: Soul Revue & Reggae Fest, Santa Monica Pier – 9/21 & 9/22/13

Despite an unusual amount of overcast on the coastal shores of Southern California this summer, the sun shined brightly for the first day of the Beach Ball Festival on the world-famous Santa Monica Pier. Along with the wonderful weather, the first day of the inaugural event featured fantastic performances from legendary pioneers, today’s biggest stars and groovy up-and-comers that told a story of past, present and future of funk and soul.

The new event offered the conveniences that smaller festivals provide as lines were short and space was plentiful. There was only one stage, so you could experience all of the acts on the bill. You could walk across the deck boards to explore what the Buddhist and Rasta merchants were selling, or grab an alcoholic beverage or something to eat from one of the many carnival and vegetarian/vegan food options, and you’d still be able to see and hear everything coming from the stage.

Myron and E, the Northern California act lead by the two-man harmony team that provides the band’s namesake, were the first act to take the stage. Their set was short but sweet, featuring songs from their new LP, “Broadway.” The sound and presentation of their music certainly possessed elements of the classic Motown and early seventies soul, but with a contemporary spin to it. There was something about them that evoked the Temptations lineup of the mid-sixties, from the sleek and fancy footwork of the two front men to the magnificent sweetness heard in the song compositions. You could say there was a little bit of Al Green and Bill Withers influence in there as well. Tight, hip-hop style drumming gave the music a modern-day groove factor.

Suited up in a very loud red, yellow and blue street huckster-like get-up, Lee Fields was next to take the stage, backed by his band, the Expressions. Whereas Myron and E’s put a modern spin on classic soul, Fields is an old-school practitioner, right down to the bone. Might as well state the obvious; his music is incredibly reminiscent of James Brown’s sound, particularly from the early ‘60s, as heard on the seminal Live at the Apollo album. It’s not a surprise that Fields has earned the nickname “Little JB.” Vocally, it would be difficult to tell the difference between the two, and while Fields didn’t do any outrageous scissor splits and was not blanketed in a cape, he is a wildly charismatic entertainer just the same. His superb vocals and the animated stage drama that he brings climaxed together with his set-closing “Wish You Were Here.”

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Fields (and most likely every other performer on the evening’s bill) may have been influenced by the Godfather of Soul, but the musician who followed him had actually worked side-by-side with the man himself. That musician would be Maceo Parker, the legendary saxophone player who served as an integral part of Brown’s band for many years, and also spent time with Parliament-Funkadelic during their heyday. His hour-long set featured Maceo originals, James Brown classics (“Make it Funky,” “Funky Good Time,” “Sex Machine”), and covers of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” In many ways, his performance served as a history lesson on getting down, and Professor Maceo had no problem keeping his students in the audience engaged.

Allen Stone, the 26 year old hippie soul wonder from Chewelah, Washington, played material from his excellent 2012 self-titled album, backed by an electrifying band that gave the material much more of a rock and roll bite. He also offered up a drastically original soul arrangement of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love.” Stone jerked with Joe Cocker-like convulsions and flailed with loose-limbed dancing, completely lost within the music. He did whatever he could to take the audience there with him, calling for the crowd to let go and surrender to moment.

Closing out the night was SoCal’s very own Aloe Blacc. His upbeat set relied heavily on his 2010 release “Good Things” and also included material from his new EP Wake Me Up, which would be released a few days later. Blacc had the smoothness in both his voice and his step, and his exuberant band was polished and never missed a note. The performance also featured guest appearances from rapper, songwriter and slam poet In-Q (who delivered a beautiful spoken word piece about love) and Blacc’s wife, Mexican-Australian rapper Maya Jupiter, who added a verse of rhyme to his hit song “I Need a Dollar.” Even Baby Boogaloo, the child B-boy star of Blacc’s “Loving You Is Killing Me” video appeared on stage to do his thing. It was a fun performance indeed, and an excellent way to spend the last day of the summer.

The second and final day of the Beach Ball Festival celebrated the sweet sounds of Jamaica, with legends from all ends of reggae spectrum playing under the warm California sun to a delighted audience.

Soul Syndicate, one of the premier reggae session bands in the seventies and eighties, took on double duty, opening the day’s festivities with two sets. Their first set was made up of their own material and many of the essential recordings that they appeared on, and the second set featured vocalist and toasting pioneer U-Roy.

Their natural chemistry and sound was on display throughout the performances. Guitarist Tony Chin and drummer Carlton “Santa” Davis supplied solid rhythm while George “Fully” Fullwood played the most colorful bass lines, all the while maintaining a cool, aloof demeanor as if he was the John Entwhistle of reggae.  Donovan Carless’ sweeter-than-candy vocals radiated with soul. With a glossy horn section backing them up, their songs about weed (“Mariwana”), women (“Black Cinderella”) and national pride (“Red, Gold and Green”) beamed with sweet grandeur in the afternoon sun.

Syndicate’s set with the ever-hip U-Roy included classic cuts from his breakthrough 1975 album Dread in a Babylon to his most recent release Pray Fi Di People. The toasting master’s super-smooth flow and melodic singing on songs like “Runaway Girl” and “Chalice in the Palace” put some dancehall flavor in the classic roots/rock/reggae sound of Soul Syndicate. The meeting of these two reggae institutions came together effortlessly as they rung the alarm, and not a sound was crying.

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The Skatalites, now on the cusp of their fiftieth anniversary, took to the stage at sundown to play the classics, including “Sugar Sugar,” “Simmer Down” (a song that originally featured vocals by a young Bob Marley) and their biggest hit, “Guns of Navarone.” While saxophonist Lester Sterling and vocalist Doreen Shaffer are the only two living members from the original line-up of the early sixties, they were joined by plenty of young blood who did a fine job at giving the music its trademark swing. Nostalgic stories about the golden age of ska were told in between songs, but it was the actual music that was able to transport the audience back to those times more than anything. Remarkably, their performance had the warmth and joy heard on their landmark recordings. For their hour-long set, Santa Monica had become, as the band put it, “Ska-Monica.”

Following a brief two-song performance with Fenton Wardle of the Oakland-based troupe Reggae Angels, Sly and Robbie reunited with fellow Black Uhuru alumni Mykal Rose. From the set opener “What is Life?” to the set closer “Sinsemella,” the reunion offered up an hour and a half worth of heady dub funk. The hypnotic drum and bass team Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare had so much boom-power that it could’ve been measured up on the Richter scale. Rose, the defining voice of the “Waterhouse” sound, lived up to his charismatic and mysterious stage presence, moving and swaying across the stage in a casual, unhurried fashion while belting out the songs from behind a pair of sunglasses. The audience sang with Rose to songs like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” as most danced the whole set through, and a fun time was had by all.

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