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The Blues Channel: Jr. Boogie guitarist Henry Geller calls on the ghosts of Stevie and Jimi.

Reggae Musings

By Garrett Wheeler

The greatest contemporary roots reggae band on earth is St. Croix's Midnite. Don't believe me? Pick up the band's 1999 album, Ras Mek Piece, give it a listen, and you'll see why reggae aficionados agree that Midnite is the real deal. Hands down, these guys are leading the modern reggae movement like a Rastafarian Moses (or two). And yes, we will follow them to the Promised Land.

Fronting the group is singer Vaughn Benjamin, whose electrifying vocals and prophetic lyrics converge with the band's melodies to produce a hypnotic sound that is passionate and gritty yet remarkably smooth. Wednesday's show at the Vets Hall proved the extent of Benjamin's vocal talent, as his calm demeanor and flawless pitch soared over the instrumental groundwork masterminded by his brother, keyboardist Ron Benjamin.

Three days later, I found myself immersed once again in the smoky, aromatic confines of the Vets Hall, this time to catch the legendary Kingston duo the Twinkle Brothers. Formed in the early '60s, the veteran Rastamen are some of reggae's oldest ambassadors. But for anyone in the audience who didn't know their lengthy history, it seemed like the band was hot off the press. Lead singer Norman Grant's lively performance was a remarkable sight—the 60-year-old reggae star skanked his way around the stage as if the aging process had had some kind of reverse effect on his energy level. Though the set lasted only an hour, the reggae icons took their Santa Cruz audience on a marijuana-induced joyride that crossed cultures and decades.

The Twinkle Brothers weren't the only ones who took their audience for a trip on a magic carpet ride last week. Tuesday night at Moe's Alley featured two local bands fully capable of flying the crowd to the moon, though in a different sort of way than with the pulsing rhythms of reggae.

The night's openers, Byron Space Circus, unleashed a rocking set that included everything from up-tempo funk to tripped-out slow jams. Zeppelinesque keyboards served as preludes to the synthesized funk grooves, held together by Jason Felton's solid bass work and unswerving percussion by Chanda Cummings. Guitarist Micah Ofstedahl's vintage funk riffs were a throwback to the Sly Stone era of paisley shirts and Afros, though Ofstedahl himself sported neither. It's OK, though; his cherry-red Les Paul was as pretty a guitar as any, and the sound it produced was warm and bright.

After the Space show came Santa Cruz blues band extraordinaire Jr. Boogie. The keyboardist's T-shirt said it all for these local rockers—"Play the Blues, Dammit!"—in big, bold letters across the back. And play the blues they did, dammit, led by Stevie Ray Vaughan reincarnate Henry Geller on electric guitar. Gellar's handiwork on the six-string was as good as it gets, with wailing solos and onstage flair to match. It didn't take a detective to figure out who Geller's influences were; he had a guitar for each of them. White Strat, Jimi. Vintage Sunburst Strat, Stevie. It was a special week for the Santa Cruz music scene, indeed. Roots, rock and reggae came together like a musical club sandwich with all the trimmings—tasty and extremely satisfying. But don't fret if you missed all the good tunes. There's always next week.

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