By: Dennis Cook
Midnite & Native Elements :: 08.08.07 :: Veteran's Memorial Hall :: Santa Cruz, CA
Looking down through the sativa fog from the tiny balcony at the cozy, cool Vet's Hall I wanted to stir the highly multicultural audience until they swirled together like a beautiful caramel latte. Onstage, Vaughn Benjamin kept repeating the word "freedom" over and over again, a hushed prayer, real longing allowed to slip the heart. Inside a building dedicated to the memory of soldiers who've given their strength, courage and, in the worst cases, lives to the cause of freedom, the deeply rooted jamming of Midnite honored the idea of freedom in a powerfully executed display of reggae's core principles of love, universality and justice for the disenfranchised.
San Francisco's Native Elements lit a fire quickly in their incredibly winning opening slot. For anyone whose tastes run to conscious dancehall and pure roots rock, this band is a major treat. Reggae, as a genre, thrives on subtle evolution – small, intelligent tweaks rather than creative upheaval. Playing in front of a striking painted backdrop of three lions striding proudly down a cobblestone road beneath green, yellow and red banners, Native Elements painted with glassy vibrations, water and wind elements strong in their massive assemblage of players, reggae's answer to Chicago or Blood, Sweat and Tears. The stage banner, painted by Lawrence Hansen of Mystic Lion, spoke to the smiling power and golden sparkle of the music swiftly wending its way around the room. When played with utter conviction and an almost spiritual devotion, as it was this night, this type of music is positively intoxicating, and it crept into our muscles and minds with a sureness that you felt.
And these muthas can play! It would be easy enough to lock into the simple lines of this genre and play them very well but Native Elements mixed it up, freely sprinkling jagged rock and jazzy soloing into the luxurious low end. Hoze Pangan (lead vocals), Chris Cortez (drums, vocals), Joseph Quianzon (lead vocals), Jimbo Duran (bass), Pete Hadden (keys), Joel Antanacio (guitar), Ben Thompson (keys), Mike Heuser (trombone), Mike Bazlamit (sax, flute), Steve Krchniak (trumpet) and Martin (percussion) glowed with obvious joy, burning brightly with an inner fire that was nearly impossible not to spark off. Bazlamit's exemplary horn and flute work had a brevity and force reminiscent of Los Lobos's Steve Berlin, and Antanacio's guitar solos hit with the incisive tone of someone like Eric Johnson or Al Di Meola rather than any reggae peers.
| Vaughn Benjamin - Midnite|
Their brand of roots is less The Wailers and more the chrome-plated swoon of early Black Uhuru. Outside of perhaps the overuse of the word "love" (which, really, is there ever TOO much in the world?), their lyrics have that potent Bob Marley shorthand where big concepts simmer down to a few words. For example, they sang, "Blue skies don't always bring sunshine/Grey skies don't always bring rain." Dr. Phil would gnaw your ear off for an hour on that idea and they get the job done in 12 words. Like the headliners, Native Elements' songs are homilies you can dance to. Church is rarely this much fun but the concepts being jostled around are much the same. At one point, they encouraged us to throw a peace sign in the air, saying, "This is the lesson of Bob Marley, the message of Jesus, the message of Rastafari," and then leading a chant of "Stop the violence!"
In a moment like this, when we're face-to-face with universal truths, we have a choice to either let go of our cynicism and aloofness or hold it tight. If we embrace the message we find ourselves smiling at strangers and breathing with less fear. During Native Elements' performance, and continued gloriously by the headliner, one tapped into a fount of positivity that emboldens our steps long after the music fades.
Midnite, dressed in street clothes sauntered in a little before 11 p.m., gear in hand, and were steady rolling in under 15 minutes. Watching them set up, before a note fell upon us, one picked up on a heavy vibe, something deep and serious, an intensity at odds with their laidback entrance. When the electricity started flowing, the music immediately confirmed the suspicion we were in the presence of a significant force in the reggae world. Even if one had no prior knowledge of the group, the sheer authority of their playing was sure to stop you in your tracks.
Hailing from the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, Midnite have steadily grown from a well-regarded cult act to one of the driving forces in modern reggae. As strong and diverse as their very independently released recorded output has been, there was a major leap that occurred in person. Some folks carry a lot of life and truth in their bones, and every member of Midnite had an aura of greatness about them. In print, that may come off as cornball exaggeration, simple hyperbole, but having seen Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama and other holy figures in my lifetime, I can only tell you that Midnite has some of the same juju going on.
For what seemed like a very long time, Midnite held the music to a purposeful crawl, commanding the music and crowd with equal, deliberate intensity. I've never seen hundreds so mesmerized by such slow rhythms and honey dripping singing. A miniature, Caucasian Chaka Khan look-alike at the lip of the stage still managed to bump and grind to the molasses flow with a lustiness usually reserved for behind closed doors - just part of that freedom spoken about at the beginning. In fact, rare was the soul not moving in some way to what Midnite was laying down. Many were bobbing rays of human sunshine, loose and fancy free, while others slowly uncurled like wide noodle pasta loosening in hot water. It was lovely enough that you could imagine kissing your neighbor and not being scolded for your impudence.
| Vaughn Benjamin - Midnite|
In Midnite one hears reggae's whole history. On the surface, it's deep roots reggae, along the lines of the aforementioned Black Uhuru or the unsung rastaliciousness of Singers & Players. Dub, ska and dancehall all infiltrate their groove, but the character of that groove is wholly their own. Even when they picked up the pace, it was still heavy as a fallen star and stoned as a first century Christian. To move around, one had to swim more than walk, gliding with the current wherever it was you thought you wanted to go. More than likely, as in the case of this author, you surrendered to the bass and inescapable contact high undulating around you and stopped trying to do anything but submerge yourself in Midnite's waters.
An opening prayer had settled us into this August night but a prayer that ended with "It's showtime." This was the intersection of spiritual practice and entertainment, and a fervent call to live in the moment, the unfolding present. Rather than waste that focus, lead singer Vaughn Benjamin would periodically ask us a pointed question like "What is your faculty without the facts?" His voice was dark and gnarled as Linton Kwesi Johnson nuanced with a Motown glide that suggested more than a passing familiarity with Lover's Rock.
| Sly Molina-Curet - Midnite|
Each instrument rose to the surface as needed. They weren't so much solos as whispered tones emerging into open air before diving deep again. The overall feeling was a purity of form that had shed a great deal of ego and traditional showmanship. After Native Elements' horn-bolstered warmth, Midnite felt much denser, utilizing two guitarists (Kenny Byron and Edmund Fieulleteau), the amazingly subtle keyboards of Ankh Watep, electric bass and vocals from Vaughn's brother, Ron Benjamin, and Sly Molina-Curet, a drummer worthy of Prince's ever-stellar bands. Through their capable hands and open hearts, Midnite carried us to the core delights and lessons of this genre. On my way out, I learned the stage banner, the one with those lions, was titled "Roots Rock Reggae Revival." Yeah, that's what this was. That's what this was indeed.
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