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It's been awhile since Shakespeare--a native of Kingston, Jamaica--and his backing band, Ship of Vibes, have been a fixture in Dallas, popular club attractions and pals with the likes of Edie Brickell. (Ex-New Bo Brandon Aly played with Ship of Vibes after the Bohemians' traumatic, innocence-eating first album.) After a long hiatus, Shakespeare and the Ship, voted the Dallas Observer's Best Reggae Band for four years back around the early '90s, currently are reuniting with (most of) the original members.
Back then, Leroy Shakespeare and the Ship of Vibes was a hot local band that aspired to the road. Shakespeare's native credentials and his polyglot vocal style--a mixture of words spoken and sung, with more than a hint of old-style toasting to it--combined with the Ship of Vibes' command of such paradoxical reggae concepts as the tight loose groove to form a band that on most nights could stand nose-to-nose with any homegrown skankers.
The musicians got their road wish, steadily expanding beyond Dallas and into the ski resorts and clubs of the Southwest; eventually they learned to be careful about what they wished for. "Our goal was to record music that was impressive enough to take us outside the borders of Texas," longtime Shakespeare associate and keyboard player Arthur Riddles says. "We wanted to get on the road."
They did, and although they experienced their share of epiphanies--like the enthusiasm they generated in Tuba City, Arizona, on a Navajo Indian reservation, two very different indigenous peoples finding a common ground through rhythm--the road grew more repetitious than rewarding. Eventually they slipped from sight.
"You get tired, traveling all the time," Shakespeare explains as he shows off his new digs, half of a spacious duplex that will obviously be a practice space. A pair of headphones hang off of a speaker stack; from across the room the sound is too distorted to recognize, yet too loud to imagine wearing on your head. The effect--combined with all those hanging sheets--is weirdly like some processed mullah's prayer. Shakespeare is not a big man, but he has a frontman's charisma and gives the impression of concentrated vitality, his face framed by leonine dreadlocks. He has that combination of approachability and utter mystery found in many Jamaicans, and his 12 years in Texas have smoothed but not erased his accent. "New carpet in these rooms here," he says proudly, opening a door.
Folks thought they'd called it quits before they actually did. "We were traveling," Riddles explains. "A lot more than most people realize. They thought we'd broken up, but we were really just someplace else." The group's strong point was always Shakespeare's talent for assimilation, encompassing a love of pop, Motown, and rock that was mirrored by guitarist David Burrus, who could bounce from power chords that Meatloaf might envy to single-note runs that twanged with country resonance--only this time, the country was Jamaica.
The promise of the band's first recorded efforts--a 12-inch single, "Rocky Road," and a KERA-FM compilation contribution--was dissipated somewhat by its first full-length album, Jubilation, an overproduced 1990 effort that saw Shakespeare's pop tendencies turn a bit cheesy, a subversion typified by two tunes featuring inappropriate and grating contributions by Brickell; a solo by Fort Worth saxman Johnny Reno was narrowly averted. "We didn't know anything back then," Riddles says, shaking his head. "There was a lot of pressure." Although the band recovered a bit of momentum with a second EP, live was where the band lived. "That's our category," Riddles sighs. "Killer live show; don't know anything about the studio."
Eventually fatigue took its toll; the musicians quit. "I didn't go anywhere," Shakespeare says. "I just took a low profile." After that, he "gigged here and there to make ends meet" and little more. Still, old thrills die hard. "I missed the players," Shakespeare confesses. "I felt it was time to get back to my origins and take what I'd been doing to the next level."
Shakespeare and the Ship of Vibes had been beloved in its heyday, and quite a bit of good will still remains. Last week at Club Dada the reformed band--Riddles, Burrus, bassist Kumba, with dreads longer than his body, and drummer Gerald Iragorri--was running through a set. There were many shout-outs and howdies from the audience; during break a bar patron came up to Shakespeare and introduced himself warmly. After a minute or two, he paused.
"You don't remember me, do you?" he asked.
"No, man," Shakespeare replied, sounding delighted nonetheless.
"The night me and my wife saw you at the Royal Rack? We gave you a ride, and we bought a 12-pack and went over to SMU?"
"No, no," Shakespeare said, shaking his head but still sounding thrilled. When the guy left, Shakespeare smiled.
"It's better to jump off for a few years and get some rest," says Shakespeare. "Then come back. Our whole style is based upon originality; in reggae, so many are the same that if you have a unique sound, you could conquer the world."