Concert Review: Ruth Ann Brown Creates Reggae History at the Strathmore

As a music critic I appreciated the opportunity to witness a fresh new female reggae artist on the rise. I must say the historic ‘Friday Night Eclectic’ two set 45 minutes set with Ruth-Ann Brown at The Mansion at Strathmore was a breath of fresh air. As an upscale venue in the Maryland suburbs of Bethesda The Strathmore Music Center is noted for hosting world-class performances by major national artists of folk, blues, pop, jazz, show tunes, and classical music. The warm and acoustically superb 100-seat Dorothy M. and Maurice C. Shapiro Music Room at Mansion in the Strathmore known more for intimate artistic programs. This was the ideal setting for Ruth-Ann Brown’s performance on October 22, 2010. 

In reggae today where a live show performance as described by veteran chanter Sister Carol as being a “Balls fest’,  it was gratifying to see the Archive band–a group of superior professional, male musicians–support a fresh new invigorating female talent. In a genre that lacks significant female lead vocalists, in both quantity and at times quality Ruth Ann is a new and welcome dynamic voice.  Ruth-Ann is poised to be one of the new forces in music in general and, reggae music in particular. 

Ruth-Ann Brown’s appearance at The Mansion at Strathmore opened reggae to an important venue where it has never gone before, but it is important for the reggae music to be heard if it is to ascend to new heights. More importantly, she and the Archive band represented the genre in a manner befitting the music especially at this time when the music is going through one of its many watershed moments and is in desperate need of great new, especially female, voices such as Ruth-Ann’s.  

Reggae music which, in comparison to the number of male vocalists, still lacks significant female lead vocal presence, gives Ruth-Ann Brown an ideal opportunity which positions her as fresh new and original voice in reggae and create her own space. 

Ruth-Ann’s moderately intense, understated but emotionally-charged evolving vocal style befits her song writing talents and original material. With a series strategically timed, psychedelic rock, jazz and blues riffs on his lead guitar and flute infused solo and interlude Mateo Monk played foil, catch and call as well as call and response to the crisp clean harmonies and melodies of back singer cum dance choreographer Tanika and the lead vocals of Ms Brown. The delicate interplay fusion was sweet, mind altering as well as ethereally pleasing. Throw in a steady array of nifty, choppy and at times searing crescendo climbing key board riffs from Darryl D- Trane, the former Mojo Nyah, keys man; varying drumming patterns ala Billy Cobran, Jo or Elvin Jones infused with one drop, 2-4-2 reggae drum style from Ken, mixed in with a steady slow-burn groove from an ever cool note playing Basie, Justin the whole thing came together, tight and just right. 

Her first set, which she opened with the Acapella ‘Nobody but Jah’ was, thematically about the joy, pain and uncertainly of romance and sex. From her deeply felt lyrics on ‘Jamdown‘ to the glib Rock with You ‘I am not looking for a boyfriend on…..’ As song writer/performer Ruth Ann can both draw on and evoke, in her audience, several differing and complex emotions from different places and at a different pace without seeming contrived.   In a convincing fashion with all original songs such  as ‘Rock with You’ ‘Chillin’ with My Baby’  ‘Unfamiliar Feelings’ ‘Breathing’ ‘Kiss The Pain’ ‘Longing For’ ‘Second Guess’ ‘Too Far’ and ‘What is Love’, Ruth-Ann reminded her intimate audience of just how complicated and necessary the game of love, sex and romance really is. 

Her second set was a completely different mood, more personal and intimate as well as solemn and painful. The combination a love song ‘I Love You’ then songs reflecting the hardcore realities of a cruel world caused Brown to became more intensely emotional and at times she seems to fight back tears.  On ‘You Can Make It’ she exhorted us to believe in ourselves, the acapella palliative ‘Everyone Feels’ was a tear-jerker, reminiscent of Capleton’s ‘Critics Won’t Leave I Alone’. On ‘Here Come the Critics’ she boldly admonished her critics.  It was on the next two songs, ‘Jamdown’ where she laments the state of her beloved Jamaica and ‘Too Much Blood’ a plea to end the ‘bloodshed in her island home which she left three years ago that she almost lost it.

She closed out her second set with ‘Single Word’Break My Heart Slowly’ and ‘Hurting Now’ as the appreciative audience applauded her exit. 

There were several things that were note worthy about Ruth’s two set performance at the Strathmore apart from its history making significance. 

Ruth-Ann’s presence gives reggae music, with the unprecedented number of female vocalists on the rise, hope and optimism for the future of reggae music in general and female singers in particular. As a songwriter, singer and performer she is both authentic without being packaged or cliché, and has a lot to say. Her thought-provoking lyrics, emotionally enraptured and sometimes easy going delivery makes her songs easy to digest.

Two other highlight were also note worthy; she is authentic in that her songs were all original material. Thus she didn’t do what has become the standard for reggae, which is to resort to reaching for a familiar well known song to engage the audience. Instead she and her band introduced to the audience new, not recycled music. From watching her live, it is easy to see she succeeded in giving a convincing performance because she is in her comfort zone doing her original material.

Second, her musical accompaniment, the Archive Band, gave a tour-de-force musical presentation that was reminiscent of the golden age of great reggae compositions. The Archive Band’s musical compositions while sounding eerily familiar didn’t parrot the original compositions that informed some of the pieces, the music was varied, diverse, musically pleasing while lending authenticity to her songs. The set of musical compositions was indeed eclectic, and in combination with Ruth’s talent both as a songwriter, singer and live performer was exciting.

 I look forward to great things from this singer and her ensemble.

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