When’s the last time you saw a serious “roots reggae” band play anywhere in the greater Savannah area?
Odds are, it’s only slightly more recent than the last time you found a decent one-room apartment in the historic downtown area for less than $850 a month.
For some strange reason, despite the enduring power and significant draw of traditional, Jamaican-based reggae, venues in our neck of the woods rarely, if ever, play host to touring groups that specialize in such introspective, feel-good message music.
In fact, despite being one of the most established rising stars on the international contemporary reggae/dub/rock scene, Savannah’s Passafire essentially had to leave this area to build their large, fervent following and — bizarrely enough — remains essentially unknown in their own hometown.
Well, if you’re used to driving to Charleston, Jacksonville, Columbia or even Augusta just to catch a much-needed fix of straight-up reggae riddims, spread word far and wide that this week, Tybee Island offers two nights of free, live reggae at two venues — something fairly unprecedented in recent memory.
Both shows are courtesy of the same group, up-and-coming Boston-based Dubbest (pronounced “duh-BEST”), which is in the midst of its first East Coast headlining tour, despite having been together as a unit for more than half a decade.
Formed while the five members were high school seniors, the group’s chemistry began to gel years earlier, when most of them cut their musical teeth together as teenagers playing pop-oriented punk rock.
In 2009, they switched gears, digging deep into the history of old-school reggae and dub and honing their chops and compositional talents. Their latest indie CD, “Avoid The Pier” was recorded mostly live in the studio and has been described by JamBands.com as “music with depth and staying power,” and by Angelica Music as simply “essential listening.”
It’s a subtly phenomenal sleeper of a record that holds up well to repeat spins, and features all the trance-inducing, polyrhythmic hallmarks of reggae, as well as the chaotic, analog, psychedelic effects processing developed during the formative years of the original dub movement.
I caught up with Dubbest’s guitarist Andrew MacKenzie on the road, and what follows are highlights from our conversation.
How is the Dubbest of today different from when it formed?
MacKenzie: Over the last five years of playing reggae and seeing it performed live by some of our favorite bands, we’ve learned how to properly execute the style. We’ve realized that less is more, song structure matters and overall tonality is crucial.
We’ve also been growing up together and learning each other’s mannerisms and artistic differences, which luckily, aren’t so different.
Your band came to reggae, ska and dub through a shared love of pop-punk, as a lot of folks seem to. What’s the connection?
MacKenzie: That is so true and I have always wondered the same thing. After hearing a few catchy Blink-182 songs, its hard not to want to pick up an instrument and jam along.
Being 13 years old, we could relate to what they were singing about.
Of course you move on from what you love to new and more interesting styles.
Reggae was at the end of the line for us, especially when we got deeper into punk and heard bands like The Clash and Bad Brains, who dabbled in reggae. It really caught our attention and impressed us immensely. So we dug into the real roots reggae, and that was that.
Were some in the group trepidatious about abandoning a proven sound for uncharted territory?
MacKenzie: By the time we left high school, not only had we all become big reggae nerds, but we knew collectively that we had the same lifelong goal of making music for a living no matter what.
Reggae seemed like a fun, challenging and meditative style to pursue.
Did this shift initially cost you a lot of fans?
MacKenzie: Sure, we had friends who didn’t (and still don’t) understand or respect our decision to do this, but it was an organic decision of ours collectively as musicians.
When we started doing reggae is when we started playing real shows and actually making albums.
How would you describe the sound or appeal of reggae or dub music to someone who had never heard such a thing?
MacKenzie: Well, it’s an “island feel,” but it’s unorthodox if you haven’t heard it before. It is truly meditative to the ears in a way you can’t comprehend until you experience it firsthand.
How viable is it to be an original, indie roots-reggae band in 2014?
MacKenzie: Currently, it’s a labor of love. We gig and rehearse on weekends, and put all the money we make as a band back into merchandise, gas money and recording.
So we all have day jobs — including painting, working at a gas station and stocking record store shelves — but we hope that changes soon!
What can folks expect from these Tybee gigs?
MacKenzie: High-energy roots reggae, with improvisation when we feel it necessary. We do some roots covers, but we’re mainly trying to spread our originals out there.
Finally, what’s the single biggest misconception folks tend to have about reggae musicians?
MacKenzie: Either think it’s simple music or that it’s made by stoners. It’s actually the opposite: A complex style where you must recognize the space and tempo.
Also, the most experienced musicians tend to have a hard time emulating the roots genre. By listening and research, we’ve found there is a lot to be learned from how they did this in the beginning, where it all began, in Kingston, Jamaica.