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Once revolutionary Steel Pulse stuck in '80s commercial rut


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000

Plenty of musicians, including Steel Pulse leader David Hinds, are quick to declare allegiance to the spirit and tradition of Bob Marley, the late reggae master whose recordings and compositions have inspired several generations of artists and listeners.

Few performers, though, seriously strive to meet the standards Marley set, in terms of musical integrity, spirituality of vision and an authentic connection to rootsy Jamaican rhythms, sing-song melodies and sweet harmonies.

Steel Pulse, once the Marley-endorsed radical reggae revolutionaries from England, took a slide in the direction of the blatantly commercial in the late '80s. And the group remains partially stuck in that rut, based on the evidence of its energetic but lackluster show Thursday night at Tampa Theatre.

Hinds' rough-hewn voice, pleading for unity and protesting social injustice on a set of songs dating back more than two decades, was as appealing as ever. The dreadlocked singer, wearing sunglasses and a football jersey, cast his eyes to the heavens (or at least the top of the ornate historic venue). Between songs, he touched the hands of fans and extended greetings of "respect" and "ra-spect."

But the sound of the nine-piece band, including original keyboardist Selwyn Brown, longtime drummer Steve Nisbett on percussion, lead guitarist Clifford Pusey and two backing vocalists, left much to be desired. The arrangements were slick and tightly arranged, with little room for the band to open up, and too many pieces were awkwardly connected via medleys. The monotonous, start-and-stop rhythms of dance hall, too, were rather artificially injected into the music on occasion.

Even worse, the sound produced by the stacks of keyboards punched by Brown and Sidney Mills might have been lifted straight out of '80s synth-pop. That approach made a poor match with Alvin Ewen's deep-throb bass lines and Conrad Kelly's nicely grooving work on drums. The overall effect, particularly on a bland cover of Van Morrison's Brown-Eyed Girl, led one observer to suggest that the once mighty band now comes off as "cruise-ship reggae."

The crowd of 716, singing along with the lyrics and dancing nonstop during much of the 80-minute set, mostly seemed unconcerned by the pre-packaged sound of Steel Pulse, circa Y2K. The favorites, including Islands Unite, Handsworth Revolution, Taxi Driver, Ku Klux Klan, Prodigal Son, Rally Round, were dutifully rolled out, and nearly everybody went home happy, by the looks of it. Still, it's impossible to imagine Marley smiling down on the proceedings.

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