Drop by the reggae tent and you pretty much already know what you're going to see: white dudes with dreadlocks, some chick in a long earthy dress dancing with her eyes closed, Jamaican-flag color schemes, joints roasting. You also know roughly what you're going to hear: offbeat rhythmic accents, scratchy upstroked guitars, lazy tempos, lyrics about peace or social injustice, maybe a fake patois. Nothing wrong with any of this. But rigid aesthetics have a way of threatening a genre's creative relevance. Things get cartoonish at a certain point. Just ask the blues.
If we must assign labels, the New Riddim is ultimately a reggae band — the word "riddim" is there in its name — but its members seem to understand that the best way to inhabit a genre is to draw from outside it. Kidnapped!, the just-released debut LP of the local seven piece, includes a cover of "Barbados," a Charlie Parker tune, and a few tracks have more in common with 1960s soul than Peter Tosh. Referencing the old quote about white boys, like Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, earnestly playing black music, frontman-organist Dan Loftus says the New Riddim is a "plastic soul" band.
"We're not one of those bands that sings about Jah and rasta," he says. "We're a bunch of white guys, and when I write the songs, I don't feel like I have to be a part of some kind of reggae tradition. Sometimes I'm trying to be like Dylan, sometimes I'm trying to write a Rolling Stones-type of song."
That hasn't always been the case with the New Riddim, which has been around in various incarnations since about 2006. Early on, the band — started by bassist Kian Byrne (now a full-time member of Celtic-rock faves the Elders) and Richard Faught (now in reggae band 77 Jefferson) — played mostly traditional ska and reggae covers. "Lots of Slackers and Hepcat and Studio One rocksteady stuff — hits that we liked," Byrne says. "It helped us form our sound. We were a three-piece for a while, with Rico [Pierce] on drums. We had a lot of friends coming in and out of the band."
Two years ago, Loftus and his brother, Conor Loftus (guitar), joined, and Dan began writing original songs for the group. In high school, Dan was in a ska band called the Uprights; he drew inspiration from acts like the Skatellites, the Specials, Madness, "and as far as third wave, I always had a soft spot for the Toasters," he says. "You could maybe even throw Rancid in there, too. But when I heard the Slackers was when I started to take ska more seriously. They proved that there's so many things you can do with this simple ska format, that you can take it to a different place while still hearing the Jamaican influences. It was more like Jamaican rock and roll."
With a batch of fresh songs (plus a reworked one from the Uprights days) and a horn section in place — Mike Walker on trombone, Marshall Tinnermeier on saxophone, and Nick Howell on trumpet — the New Riddim decided it was time to finally cut a record.
Kidnapped! is a little uneven, probably because some of songs were recorded at John Bersuch's Innerhorse Studios, and some were recorded at Merriam Shoals with David Moore. But the vibe it lays out is on the mark — mellow and fun without dipping into dumb tropes about smoking weed or Kingston. Instrumental opener "Cool Ska" sets the brassy, ambling tone. The weirdest track, "Muma Muma," is a cover, sung by Walker, who discovered it on an old reggae comp. Walker thinks it's by either Rico and the Rudies or Rico Rodriguez and the Israelites. Or something. "Trojan Records was really bad about about artist credits," he says.
"Nobody really knows who wrote the song," Loftus says. "When we went for the publishing rights, they basically told us that as far as they're concerned, the song doesn't exist."
Suggested listening, courtesy of the New Riddim:
The Slackers, Redlight
"I love both the album and the studio track. It's the first Slackers album I ever heard, and it really opened my eyes. It's so simple, but it has so much soul, and it's kind of melancholy. A lot of cliché shit on there, but they pull it off."
— Dan Loftus
Derrick Morgan, "Tougher Than Tough"
"It's this classic ska song that defines the idea of the fearless rudeboy. These rudeboys are standing trial, and they tell the judge, We are strong like lion, we are iron."
— Conor Loftus
The Scofflaws, "Paul Getty"
"The Scofflaws were my favorite live act of all the third-wave ska bands. They knew how to work a crowd like nobody else. 'Paul Getty' is my favorite off their self-titled debut. The lyrics manage to sympathetically describe what it's like to be a ska fan while having a laugh about it, too. It's a total culture shock, I'm the only rudeboy on the block. Indeed."
— Mike Walker
Heptones, Cool Rasta
"Just a great album through and through — starts out heavy on the bass with the title track that just grabs your attention."
— Rico Pierce
Madness, The Rise & Fall
"This album has 'Our House,' which was kind of their big hit and which was sort of a departure from their two-tone ska sound. It's like half ska, half new wave. It blurs the lines between reggae and rock and roll in a way I really like."
— Dan Loftus
Eric Donaldson, "Lonely Nights"
"My favorite reggae vocalist. He's had a number of hits, but this tune is the one that knocks me out. The individual parts are fairly simple, but the way they work together is magic. Eric's vocal makes this one a classic."
— Mike Walker