Jah-Haw! It's the Reggae Cowboys
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 23, 2002) – Toronto’s Reggae Cowboys are not the first group to uncover a connection between Jamaican rhythms and country-and-western music and culture. Toots Hibbert has been covering John Denver’s “Country Roads” for several decades (he says he thought it was a Ray Charles song the first time he heard it), and the plot of Bob Marley’s most famous song, “I Shot the Sheriff,” is pretty much lifted from a Hollywood western.

But it’s probably safe to say that no group has so fully dedicated itself to exploring the seemingly incongruous combination of cowboys and reggae as do Reggae Cowboys, who will perform in cowboy hats and full western regalia at Club Helsinki (528-3394) in Great Barrington on Friday night at 9.

It’s not just a gimmick, however. On the quartet’s latest album, Rock Steady Rodeo (Tumbleweed), several songs are devoted to the little known chapter of Wild West history involving black cowboys. The group, led by vocalist/guitarists Stone Ranger and Click Masta Sync, both natives of Dominica, shoots spaghetti western-style guitar licks through songs like “Geronimo” and “Reggae Rodeo.” Otherwise their music is very much in the classic Bob Marley/UB40 vein.

Jennifer Greer: Pianistic poetry

Based on her seven-song EP, Jewel Machine, Jennifer Greer shares more than a little with Tori Amos. She’s a piano-playing singer-songwriter with a range encompassing blues to folk to dark, pop-rock tunes. But underneath her piano music, accompanied only by drums, she favors the syncopated rhythms of funk and hip-hop. If you didn’t listen closely to her lyrics, her sweet, luscious soprano -- the perfect accompaniment to her lush, classically-influenced keyboard work -- could delude you into thinking her songs were not full of steamy angst and erotic tension (“Why can’t you hear me/Do I have to do a birthday striptease?”).

The 30-year-old Greer, who lives in the Pioneer Valley, is a native of New York who studied piano as a child. By the time she was 12, poetry had replaced piano as her main passion. After she completed her undergraduate degree at Sarah Lawrence College she continued to publish poetry in various journals, before settling in Northampton and picking up where she left off on the piano. She now combines the poetic impulse with the pianistic, and she’ll bring both to the stage on Friday night at Red (442-0313) in Pittsfield.

Critic’s picks

Jazz fans can warm up for a big weekend at the Castle Street Café in Great Barrington tonight with pianist Mike Schiffer. On Friday night innovative guitarist Mike Musillami brings his quartet to Castle Street, where Manhattan Transfer co-founder Laurel Masse will lead her quintet on Saturday night. The Scott Sasanecki Trio will bring the curtain down on a jazzy weekend at Castle Street on Sunday.

Speaking of jazz, avant-jazz group Sex Mob will go in the opposite direction when they play “retro waltz music” with special Viennese guest artist saxophonist Max Nagl on Saturday night at 7, ushering in the Vienna Project, a summer-long collaboration among Berkshire cultural organizations. The dance party, marking the opening of MASS MoCA's exhibition “Uncommon Denominator: New Art from Vienna,” morphs into a techno dance party with Blow Up! Vienna, a DJ/VJ collective that will mix electronic music with projected images from summer shows at three North County museums.

There’s zydeco music at Club Helsinki tonight with Sean Ardoin and the Zydecool Band. The Berkshires’ number-one bluegrass outfit, the Bear Bridge Band, plays an all-too-rare gig on Friday at 8 at Arrowhead in Pittsfield. Wacky, eclectic roots-rock jam-band Hypnotic Clambake (think of them as the Gypsy-bluegrass version of They Might Be Giants) are at Helsinki on Saturday night. Eric Underwood and Eladia are at the Dream Away Lodge in Becket on Saturday night. Last chance to catch Big Blue Holler, which is disbanding, this Sunday at Camp Overflow in East Otis. Surf-rock guitar legend Dick Dale is at the Iron Horse in Northampton next Tuesday.

Radio Beat

Another in our series of periodic tallies of the most-played recordings -- most new, some old – on our imaginary radio station:

1. Wilco, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (Nonesuch)
2. They Might Be Giants, “Mink Car” (Restless)
3. Cat Stevens, “In Search of the Centre of the Universe” (A&M)
4. Dave Tarras and the Muziker Brothers, “Tanz!” (Epic/Legacy)
5. Jewlia Eisenberg, “Trilectic” (Tzadik)
6. Amy Fairchild, “Mr. Heart” (So Fair)
7. Dave Douglas, “The Infinite” (Bluebird)
8. David Byrne, “Look Into the Eyeball” (Virgin)
9. Jessica Lurie Ensemble, “Zipa Buka! ” (Zipa)
10. Lucy Kaplansky, “Every Single Day” (Red House)


Shannon McNally

“Jukebox Sparrows” (Capitol)

Slick pop is rarely as soulful as it is on Shannon McNally’s debut album, which in its combination of rootsy touches and catchy pop delights recalls Shelby Lynne’s breakthrough of a few years back. When McNally’s voice pierces through the lush but tasteful arrangements, she evinces a Bonnie Raitt-like bluesiness, and when she rocks out she recalls Sheryl Crow. She also boasts a hint of jazz on the classic pop-style ballad, “Colorado.” But in the end, McNally is that rare bird these days: an authentic, pop singer-songwriter, with a haunting, reedy voice all her own and an album’s worth of memorable tunes. Could be the year’s best debut. [5/26/02]

Shannon McNally is at the Iron Horse in Northampton on Sunday at 7.

Lauryn Hill

“MTV Unplugged 2.0” (Columbia)

If you’re in the market for a document of a famous performer self-destructing in front of an audience, this is the CD for you – two disks of self-indulgent psycho-babble ranting (including one between-song tangent that goes on for more than 12 minutes) punctuated by sad-sack stories of how unhappy Hill was “slaving” away when she became famous in the wake of her Grammy-winning solo debut, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” Then there are the songs – a new batch of mediocre, wordy, overwrought songs she stumbles through alone on acoustic guitar. This is the sound of a nervous breakdown. [5/26/02]

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 23, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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