Updating the mainstream
Perhaps it's just a sign of the times (impending millennium sows seeds of divisiveness everywhere, etc.), but reggae music is animated by a tension between old and new every bit as vital as the one Western pop is currently experiencing via the much-ballyhooed electronica wave. In the case of reggae, the Bob Marley-style roots are challenged by the electronic innovations creeping in through dub and dancehall music.

Perhaps no artist better embodies that struggle than Michael Rose. The leader of Black Uhuru during the early '80s, Rose--pacing the stage, deadly serious, like a gruff Lion of Judah--came to stand for the group during its highly successful Grammy-winning phase, when it carried the torch of post-Marley reggae to an international audience. While with the band, Rose--who had come up with essential artists such as Big Youth and Dennis Brown as well as Sly & Robbie and the Wailers--established a sound that the band still heeds today, particularly in the realm of vocals. He retired from music in order to tend his Jamaican coffee plantation in 1986, but returned to music in the early '90s.

At first he seemed to be trying a bit too hard to distance or distinguish himself from Black Uhuru, but his three albums for Heartbeat--Michael Rose (1994), Be Yourself (1996), and the just-released Dance Wicked--have shown the 40-year-old singer-songwriter to be forming a sound that fits as a signature, thanks mainly to his sweet, gracefully deployed tenor. Some reggae fans, however, have bemoaned his supplanting old-school rhythms with increasingly complex machine-generated parts and sounds.

Dance Wicked is an update of reggae, yes, but not an intrusive one. Produced by the hot team of Mafia and Fluxy (Leroy and David Heywood), the album brashly struts through reggae archetypes: songs of determination ("Never Get Me Down," "Mind Made Up"), social commentary ("Landlord," "Life in the Ghetto"), or praises to the freedom of rhythm (the title track, pegged as the album's first single). Obviously revamped, Dance is nevertheless still very much a current in mainstream reggae.

Where opposing sides push up against each other can also be a dandy meeting place, a point Rose seems to make with "Lion in the Jungle," co-written and performed with fellow boundary-pushing (and decidedly new school) artist Maxi Priest. Propelled by a rhythm that is supple to the point of burbling, "Lion" is a mix of old school and new technique that probably is the face of reggae in the '90s. Rose also tackles the past with a shining update of the old Black Uhuru hit "Happiness." He confronts the future with Dub Wicked, the companion album to Dance that features the album's cuts given the spacy, wide-open remixing that characterizes the dub movement.

Like the visit last week of soca star The Mighty Sparrow, Rose's stop-over is a prime chance to see--up close and personal, with a minimum of hassle--an artist who is a very big, packed-house kind of a deal in his homeland. Take advantage of it.

--Matt Weitz

Michael Rose plays Poor David's Pub Tuesday, August 26.


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