His name is Tilmann Otto, but he's best known as Gentleman , the No. 1 reggae performer in Germany. He was born and raised in Cologne, the cultural center of the Rhineland — not exactly a place that comes to mind in connection with reggae.
"There's a big scene there," says Gentleman, who is in California for a series of reggae festivals. "There's a lot of things happening there, a lot of big festivals. Summer Jam, for example, is one of the biggest festivals in Europe. That is in Cologne. We have 40,000 or 50,000 people going there every year. We have a lot of sound systems, a lot of radio stations playing reggae music. The music is really established. It's not as huge as R&B; it still takes place in the underground."
So, Gentleman grew up listening to reggae — "especially roots reggae music," he said. "I found so much truth in the lyrical content, so much wisdom. It's a universal message, a message people from all over the globe can identify with. And there's so much energy with the combination of drum and bass — you know, the one-drop — which is so powerful. Artists like Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Garnett Silk, Bob Marley — they inspired me over the years.
"The music taught me a lot. It's beyond entertainment. Of course, the music has to move you, you need a melody, but beyond the melody and the rhythm there's a deep message. It's a message of being aware, aware of what the system gave us, what our parents taught us, what the priests taught us. You question it and filter it and see if it's really yours.
The cover of his new album, Another Intensity, shows him all in white. Is the fact that he's a white European singing music from a black culture ever a problem? "Not for me," he says. "I don't think in those terms. I never did. That has nothing to do with my inner soul. A lot of people in Jamaica know my songs ... they sing along with my songs on the radio. They don't know who's singing, and it doesn't matter. The music don't have no color, it don't have no borderlines, it don't have no limits. It's a universal thing. That's my aim, to be universal."
Gentleman and the Far East Band (from East Germany, not Asia) are working their way up the West Coast this week playing festivals associated with the anniversary of the birth of Bob Marley. Originally Sunday's February Reggae Fest in Arcata was supposed to feature African reggae star Alpha Blondy, also a headliner at the Raggamuffins festivals in San Francisco and Long Beach. However, Alpha Blondy came down with pneumonia before making it to California and has left the country canceling all pending appearances. In Arcata he'll be replaced by smooth singing Jamaican veteran Gregory Isaacs (of "Night Nurse" fame) with the Livewire Band , a killer combo that includes most of the Roots Radics band: bassistErrol "Flabba" Holt and drummer Style Scott (both also in Dub Syndicate), Dwight Pickney on lead guitar and "Steelie" Johnson on keys. These are the guys who backed Isaacs on his seminal Night Nurse album in 1982. Filling out the bill at the mini-fest at the Arcata Community Center is a Reggae on the River/Rising fave, Anthony B, a Bobo Dread in the conscious vein. Note that this is an all ages, all day thing with doors opening at 2 p.m. for DJ music, Jamaican food, vendors and so on. The show will serve as respite for the People Productions crew who are throwing the party, since they'll be in court all week with that Reggae Trial you may have heard about.
The Mateel (the other party in court) has its own reggae show coming up on Wednesday, Feb. 27, this one featuring St. Croix rootsman Midnite plus the smiling Jamaican singer Prezident Brown and The Solid Foundation Band . I just opened up Prez' MySpace and his one-drop cover of the old soul hit, "Be Thankful for What You've Got" is playing as I type — very cool, and a theme that seems apropos.
Prezident Brown also plays Tuesday, Feb. 26, at the Red Fox. As with most of his Cali tour this show lists San Francisco-based reggae vocalist Andrew Diamond in support position. Diamond is the drummer for The Solid Foundation Band, so he'll be at the Mateel too.
Is that enough reggae for you? Well, there's more: Friday at the Red Fox there's a celebration of African History Month (which I guess is the same as Black History Month) with "revolutionary dancehall artist" Jah Shiloh plus Serious de Witness with Foundation International (not the same as Solid Foundation) and special guest Jah Womb . OK, that's enough irie biz-niz.
The opposite of reggae? Try Seattle alt. rockers I'm A Gun , who explain their name saying, "Well, someone once said, 'It's not the gun that killed the man, but the man who fired the gun that killed the man.' I'm A Gun refines that statement, realizing that they are not separate from the weapon — that the weapon is simply the will to fire." Got that? The three-piece is at the Pearl Lounge Thursday, Feb. 21, sharing a bill with U-freaka's hottest new indie rock outfit, Arrogant Hare , who rose "from the ashes of the Buffy Swayze and the Great Salvation."
For the jamband crowd we have a two-night (Friday and Saturday) run at Humboldt Brews by the S.F. quintet New Monsoon , touring behind their latest, a disc titled simply V (as in the Roman Numeral 5). It's what you'd expect from seasoned jammers, solid grooves mixing acoustic and electric, rock, country, jazz, funk and so on, good harmonies on the vocals. The band brought in John Cutler to produce/engineer/mix the record. He's the guy who did later albums by the Dead and the Garcia Band, so you know what they were looking for. No, they're not at Dead level yet, but they're heading the right direction. Fast-rising Cali-psyche/soul/roots jammers Izabella open both nights.
And if you want to get away from town, New York poet/songwriter Kaydi Johnson returns to the Lost Whale for a two-night run (also Friday and Saturday) joined as usual by Humboldt's own Kulica .
Something jazzy? Saturday at the Pearl catch a relatively new band with Ryan Bridwell on keys, Ali Chaudhary on guitar, Baron Wolfe on electric bass and Mike LaBolle on drums. Ryan promises, "some standards, some originals, some funked-up pop and rock, some impromptu." The band is untitled so far — free martini on Ryan if you come up with a name.
Eclectic acoustic rockers Tao Jonesers and their alt. friends from Arcata The Candles play Friday at the Logger Bar in Blue Lake. I still haven't heard the Jonesers live, but I've listened to everything on their MySpace and frontman John Ludington writes some damn good songs.
Several people have pointed out the inherent irony in honky tonk heroes Rooster McClintock playing at the Scotia Inn, something about the bandmembers' roots in Earth First! Is that ironic? Anyway, R. McC. plays the old mill town Friday.
Santa Cruz neo-old timey band The Devil Makes Three has a whole lot of fans locally, so if you want to see them Friday at the Jambalaya, you'd best get tickets ahead of time.
Speaking of advance tickets, you might want to think about picking them up for the Death Cab for Cutie show at the Van Duzer April 21, and/or for the Tegan and Sara show April 19.
Hey, the Placebo is back with "a punkalicious all-ages show" Saturday, Feb. 23, in the Ink People's space (in the back of the Muni) with Social Concern , female-fronted hardcore/punks from Chico, S.F.-based experimental punks The Floating Corpses and a new local acousto-punk outfit called The Radical Devil . Starts early — 6:30 p.m. — ends early — 10 p.m. Good to see the kids are back in action.
Last but not least, how about a fine meal and some good dance music? The Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy's6th Annual Elegant French Dinner and Dance Saturday* evening* at the Bayside Grange starts with a sit-down dinner (overseen by an excellent French chef who also teaches at the school) followed by dancing to everyone's favorite dance band The Delta Nationals . Mais oui!