Live: Lee “Scratch” Perry, The Congos, Peaking Lights and Even More Dub in NYC

May 31, 2013

Prior to last night's Red Bull Music Academy dub extravaganza, the last show that I saw at Le Poisson Rouge was a hardcore show, part of the sprawling New York's Alright festival. Naturally, no one on stage during the dub show let out a soul-rattling scream. It seemed like most of the audience members had showered recently and, of course, there was no moshing. Everywhere you'd looked last night, you'd see lazily gyrating bodies with stoned faces. Considering the fact that the weed stench was pretty minimal, it must have been the music causing this collective daze. Much like the Drone Activity in Progress show at the Knockdown Center earlier this month, the story of the night was the absurd and expensive extent to which Red Bull made sure they were treating the music right. At the drone show, they had three separate massive PAs. At Le Poisson Rouge, they had three or four of these massive subwoofers. They had to have been over three feet tall. During a collaborative set by Future Times and Peaking Lights, the bass once got so intense that you could feel your nostrils vibrate. Needless to say, there was a Red Bull employee quick to chastise anyone who rested a drink on one of the giant subs, even a noble journalist just trying to snap a photo and bring the scoop to his dear readers.

Future Times and Peaking Lights' set begun a narrative that would unfold over the course of the night: the journey backwards in time from electronic music to its origins. In a move of deft booking, the Red Bull people chose the most cutting-edge dance music possible, presenting artists that had taken the sounds so far forward that they started to fold back towards dub. Future Times label heads Maximillion Dunbar and Mike Petillo teamed up with Wisconsin's favorite mom-and-pop dub band, Peaking Lights, for a set that went from psychedelic, sample-based ambience to the hardest of house and back. They crushed it most when channeling dub's rhythmic abstraction. At one point, the kick drum provided a steady beat, but its pattern seemed to be constantly shifting, robbing the rhythm of a time signature. It was easily danceable, but hard to pick apart logically, making for an intense musical experience. Perhaps such a risky and complex approach is unsustainable for 40 minutes, so a good amount of the stage time was devoted to the typical four-to-the-floor thing, which could leave the abstract music junkies in the crowd feeling sufficiently teased.

Then The Congos took the stage with Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras (altogether subjects of a FADER feature last year), schooling everyone in the room on how to perform. Immediately apparent was the rift in performance styles between the opening act and The Congos. Future Times and Peaking Lights basically manipulated electronics and danced in place, which is admittedly preferable to just manipulating electronics. But The Congos worked the crowd in a way that makes you understand why your parents always complain that no one does good music any more. The group would often play about eight bars to a song—enough to stake out the groove—and then halt to shower an ecstatic audience with praise. “You like the vibes? I love you! I'm hot!” Today's typical performer offers a curt “thank you,” but The Congos constituted their entire set on a torrent of love, both for the people on the floor and for the guy in the sky. Turns out a mass hysteria of good vibes will get you high.

That division between the first two sets boils down to the fact that dance music leaves the burden of audience participation to the music. If you could actively engage with Future Times and Peaking Lights, then you were good, but most people were just chatting by the end of the set. On the other hand, The Congos, and later Lee “Scratch” Perry, went for something old school. They used words and gestures and, yes, love to enrapture the audience. Hence, The Congos set acted as a musical bridge between the young guns up first and the legend up last. It was a utopian confluence of cutting-edge electronic sounds—courtesy of Sun Araw and the boys, which included RVNG INTL head, Matt Worth, on bass—with old school crooning and crowd-plying. Consider the fact that the band would switch off songs from the classic Heart of the Congos and the group's collaboration FRKWYS album. The former is an album of Rastafarian devotional music while the latter is totally secular, yet still a pursuit of music's spiritual potential. This set was a proposition for how to combine such seemingly contradictory modes of music and performance. It seems no mistake that The Congos consistently called Sun Araw “Sun Ra,” perhaps an effort to unite eras and ideals.

About 45 minutes after The Congos finished, Lee “Scratch” Perry took the stage. If you saw this guy on the street, you'd gawk for a couple minutes and then scurry away at risk of having your mind blown. Donning a dyed-red beard, a small fortune in jewelry and mirrors on his hat, feet and crotch, the master producer spent the entirety chanting in what was probably English. At least, at one point you could tell he said “legalize marijuana.” He was ushered on stage by The Congos—for whom he produced Heart of the Congos—and spent his set playing into his myth as a mystic and an eccentric. He made his name leading bands from behind the mixing desk, and on stage he does the same as MC. Perry doesn't play singer as much as spokesperson of an entire tradition, of an entire world of music that is often marginalized as “Bob Marley did it.” Completing the narrative arc of the night, Perry brought out both Augustus Pablo's son and a laptop-wielding DJ to remind that his decades-old version of experimental music circles right back to the current day. His indiscernible chanting at first appeared to be the ramblings of a crazy old man. But no, these are the tongues of reggae’s leading evangelist, one who is as likely to hold a Bic lighter to the microphone as he is his mouth.

Live: Lee “Scratch” Perry, The Congos, Peaking Lights and Even More Dub in NYC