Seldom do we get to see living music legends perform live. The possibility of seeing two living legends live on the same stage is almost unheard of. These moments usually involve the names “Springsteen” or “McCartney.”
However, on the night of May 16, 2012, in a quaint little town just outside Washington, DC, a small crowd of about 200 witness something spectacular. “Dub King” and producer extraordinaire Lee “Scratch” Perry takes the stage at the historic State Theatre in Falls Church, Virginia backed by NYC-based DJ collective Subatomic Soundsystem joined by legendary percussionist Larry McDonald and Paul Zazky, bassist for European dubstars Dubblestandart.
Now you may be asking yourself “Did he just compare two reggae musicians with McCartney and Springsteen?” The answer, simply is…Yes.
Lee Perry is a Jamaican performer, producer, and musician of almost mythic status. His work as a producer and musician is considered some of the most influential in the history of ska, reggae, and dub – Jamaican music in general. He is almost solely responsible for The Wailers’ early reggae sound, and had tremendous influence on them as a producer. Critics agree that the best of The Wailers’ material was recorded with Perry. Along with King Tubby, he is credited with being the inventor of dub, a sublime genre of music which eventually gave rise to dance music, hip-hop, electronica, and the futuristic dubstep movement. He won a Grammy, the highest musical honor awarded in the U.S., for his Jamaican E.T. album. At 76 years of age he continues to produce and perform all over the world.
Larry McDonald is considered by many to be one of the greatest living reggae percussionists. His work with musicians like Bob Marley, Lee Perry, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Gil-Scott Heron, Taj Mahal, The Skatalites, and Manu Dibango has been lauded by critics the world over. He played percussion on many of the seminal reggae records of the “golden age.” Larry McDonald recorded his first solo album at the age of 70 after a 40-year career as a session player and member of the bands Dub Is a Weapon and the Rocksteady 7. McDonald is now touring North America with Scratch and his friends from Subatomic Soundsystem.
“It all came together rather quick,” says McDonald. “I got a call from the sax player (of Subatomic Soundsystem) and he said Scratch is doing this tour, you know, a few dates.”
The tour kicked off in Falls Church, VA on May 16, 2012 with DJ Emch stepping to the sound system on stage and dropping a brutal dub selection from Subatomic Soundsystem, a dub collective from New York City who, in addition to producing original dub tracks, have remixed plenty of Scratch’s classic tracks to dubstep. Subatomic’s opening set was electric, with Emch playing the righteous “selecta,” choosing the perfect tracks to build the audience to near-frenzy.
Lee “Scratch” Perry takes to the stage to Emch’s thundering bass track dressed as only Scratch would dare: custom-styled Timberlands, dressed in all-black, wearing a baseball cap decorated with reflective medallions that splash the spotlights back on the crowd. He treats the crowd to many of his classics and a few of his newer tracks, dancing and inter-playing with the crowd as Scratch loves to do. A small man in stature, his bodily movements and quirky dancing seem almost acrobatic for a man pushing 80.
“To the rescue, Here I come….I’m a Rainbow, I am a Rainbow, You’re a Rainbow too” he sings to Zazky’s booming baseline of Bob Marley’s “Sun Is Shining.” What a great tune to hear from the man who crafted that heavy groove some 40 years ago.
“I’m gonna put on an iron shirt, and chase the devil out of earth” he chants to the bouncy rhythm of Max Romeo’s classic “Chase The Devil,” another Perry-produced gem from the Black Ark. As he moves through a virtual cadre of nearly every legendary reggae tune one could imagine, most of which were crafted by Perry himself, it is apparent that much of this performance is unrehearsed and improvisational. Perry takes a “Happy Birthday” shout-out from the crowd and inserts it into “War Inna Babylon” and it seems to fit in some strange way. Scratch begins to illicit specific notes from the backing musicians, basically crafting new “riddims” on stage. Most performers would absolutely shudder at such a thought, but for Perry, it’s music. It’s how he makes music. It’s how he feels music.
One gets the feeling that the show in Scratch’s head is much better than the one on stage.
Without a doubt, the highlight of the show is the Dubblestandart remix of “Black Panta” from Perry’s classic dub album Blackboard Jungle. The original track is flawless, and never sounds dated. Yet remixed, it sounds futuristic. The drum solo by Larry McDonald after being coaxed by Perry is one for the history books. Every ounce of oil he rubbed into his palms and fingertips before the show is vaporized after he stops abusing the congas. The crowd absolutely loses their minds because he gives everything he has during that solo.
Perry brings the house down with the “Black Panta” remix, which I later discover is “Blackboard Jungle Dub,” a track from the 2009 album “Return From Planet Dub” by Perry and Dubblestandart. Though I’m not a huge fan of dubstep, Subatomic Soundsystem does an excellent job of maintaining the original track’s character and feel, while at the same time adding the futuristic elements of dubstep. If you haven’t heard much from Subatomic Soundsystem, you soon will. Until then, visit their website at http://subatomicsound.com for tour dates and media.
As always, the historic State Theatre was alive with great vibes, and the show sounded great. A solid showing for the kick-off to Perry’s North American Tour. They play NYC’s Gramercy Theater the following night. The tour continues in select cities throughout the U.S., with the final show on May 26, 2012 in Aspen, Colorado.