I first saw this band about seven years ago. I was on a date and the two of us stumbled into The Mousetrap just to see what was up. Man, were we surprised. Tucked behind a long wall opposite the bar were 13 musicians, all singing, jamming and bopping around—mostly vertically—on a handkerchief-sized stage. Four wind instruments (including a tuba!), bass, two guitars, a keyboard, drums, various percussives.
A veritable smorgasbord of instruments.
And a smorgasbord of men of all shapes, sizes, styles and colors.
And, damn, were they good! Their music is a fusion of reggae, hip-hop, rock, ska, and jazz with sizzling originals and original covers. Believe me when I tell you they blow the roof off the joint. Really.
I gotta admit, I was startled. Totally bemused. I mean, I'd just gotten used to Eau Claire's whitebread, pick-up truck, gun-toting, camouflage-blaze-orange-and-baseball cap-wearing culture. Add to this that downtown Eau Claire was still in its empty, 'Salem's Lot phase, complete with Karen Carpenter muzak blaring onto barren streets from hidden speakers and perhaps you can imagine my befuddlement. And I was still new to the Chippewa Valley's music scene. I didn't comprehend the talent we have here.
Irie Sol is the realization of Chris “Junior” William's dream and, as their website says:
“...out of the Twin Cities with a musical blend that reflects diverse band members–who hail from Kingston, Jamaica; Nova Scotia, Canada; Providence, RI; Detroit, MI; Minneapolis, MN; and the Chippewa Valley of Wisconsin–Irie Sol delivers authentic Jamaican chat/DJing and soaring, soulful melodies backed by blazing bebop horns, wailing guitar, and tight drum and bass.”
Their self-description is accurate, but just doesn't do them justice.
Last Friday I revisited The Mousetrap to catch Irie Sol. The band wasn't as full as in other shows—only 9 musicians onstage—but they did not disappoint. I try to go to all their local gigs and this is how much I like them: I was supposed to head to Iowa Friday night, but decided to leave early Saturday morning instead. Just so I could catch them. I wasn't able to stay for both sets, but I did hear some of my favorites including one of their originals, “Lies.” Their covers are as diverse as their band and include songs from The Stray Cats, Michael Jackson, Lynyrd Skynard (with their own Jamaican flare), and Bill Withers.
The whole band is interesting. Chris is tall, brown and beautiful with long, waist-length dreads and lilting Jamaican accent. He sings and mostly plays percussion, but I've seen him pick up other instruments as need or whim dictates. And he makes a point of personally touching bases with the audience. A really good guy.
They appear to have a special super-drummers store, because the faces hidden back behind all those other bodies change frequently, but the quality of the drumming is always superb. My favorite Irie Sol drummer story goes like this:
I'd heard word that Mario Dawson—one of their drummers—played in the Obama Whitehouse. About a year later he joined them at what is now EveryBuddy's Bar in downtown Chippewa (I kid you not, they also play at The Snout) and over the break I approached Mario and asked him about the rumor. It was not a rumor. Mario explained that he knows Kanye West (I believe he said he was raised with Kanye in Chicago) and played behind him at the Whitehouse. I was blown away. Here was a guy who'd played for our President now playing for us in downtown Chippewa Falls, population 16-thousand-and-something.
Joel Pace is one of the frontmen. He's stylish, typically in black and red, sporting a fedora and cool retro sideburns. He's a show in himself as he croons so pretty into the microphone, break-dances with the audience, matches the drummer with his own brand of mouth-percussion (I can't really explain, you just have to see it) plays his trumpet on the bar, always smiling and never still. One of my favorite songs is their original, “Senorita Linda,” sung by Joel in what appears to be flawless Spanish (he also does an astonishing Spanish version of Hendrix's “Little Wing” with another band, but I'll save my praises for another blog). He loves performing and his joy is obvious.
Lars Nelson is a Seattle-grunge-Cobain throwback. Cool, aloof and sexy in flannel with long-ish hair and a powerful voice, he'll leave the stage as he sings to dance with his fans. He's also an awesome songwriter.
These men are Irie Sol's core. Their heart. The keyboard player, Kurt, and guitar player, Gregory, have both been with the group for a while, but part of the band's charm is that you never know who will be on stage, but you always know the show will be good.
I do feel obliged to offer a warning: Because the musicians come from all over, the band usually starts later than advertised, and—unless they're playing at Phoenix Park--they rarely play during “grown-up” hours. And their last set is usually the best. But don't let this stop you. Check out their website, join their fanpage on Facebook and mark your calendar when they announce their next gig. The guy I was dating when I first discovered this band didn't last, but I've become a full-fledged Irie Sol fan and I bet you will too. Just make sure you take a nap before you go so you can stay for the whole show.
You can also take a little bit of Irie home with you. Here's a link to their CD titled "Solstice."
They've also just released an album (yes, you read right: an ALBUM) titled "Irie Sol: Live In Nashville". Clicking the link will take you right to their website. If you're not old-school enough to have a turntable the album comes with a digital download card.