In Charlottesville, reggae music typically seems like more of a passing fancy than a fundamental part of local music—an indicator of an uptick in Bob Marley blunt posters in UVA dorm rooms, perhaps, or a double-dub dare for some adventurous booking agent. Heck, it was a phase for local Lem Oppenheimer, a co-founder of the Easy Star record label and manager of the Easy Star All-Stars. Oppenheimer simply found a way to make the phase last.
Getting better all the time: The Easy Star All-Stars unveil Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band at Is on June 5.
After he graduated from Oberlin College, Oppenheimer and a few New York friends pooled the bulk of their savings—roughly $5,000 per person—and started Easy Star in the mid-’90s. In 1997, Oppenheimer and his future wife moved to Charlottesville and saw just what a “phase” reggae could be.
“We did Reggae Mondays at the Blue Moon Diner from 1999 to 2001 or 2002,” said Oppenheimer in a recent interview. “I would go DJ, and we had Jamaican specials. It was a great scene, but it wasn’t particularly like there was a live music element, because there wasn’t anyone to play here.” Acts like The Greg Ward Project and Stable Roots reliably visited from Harrisonburg, and DJ Scotty B threw a few great reggae dance parties, but the idea of anyone making a living from dub or dancehall music seemed about as likely as a reggae band recording a new Dark Side of the Moon.
For those of you familiar with the Easy Star All-Stars, however, you know that this is precisely what the band managed on Dub Side of the Moon—a song-by-song remake of the classic Pink Floyd album. (Yes, it syncs up with The Wizard of Oz.) “Dub Side of the Moon sells enough consistently, and gave us a real base of income coming in, that we could count on,” explained Oppenheimer. “Then Radiodread”—the All-Stars’ take on Radiohead’s OK Computer—“added into that. It doesn’t sell as well as Dub Side but, combined, we [can] expect 300 records sold a week in the U.S.”
And each new effort from Easy Star All-Stars means another peak in Charlottesville’s reggae phase. The group’s latest tour, in support of the Billboard Chart-cracking Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band (guess who, Billy Shears?), brings the group back to town for a gig at Is on June 5 ($15, 9pm). It’s a spot the group knows well: Easy Star All-Stars played its first gig in the same space when it was the Starr Hill Music Hall in 2003.
“As someone who’s been to a lot of shows there, I know I have a personal bias,” laughed Oppenheimer. “But that [show] was just one of those spine-tingling ones. They would go into a Pink Floyd song, and all of a sudden they’d stop singing and the whole audience would be singing. It was a good one.” You can expect a good deal of tracks from the Lonely Hearts Dub album, like the entrancing “Within You, Without You,” as well as some Dub Side tracks and the obligatory “Karma Police” cover from Radiodread.
On a separate track, props to Is booking agent Jeyon Falsini for once more giving a room to a sound we don’t hear too often in town. Falsini’s efforts at Is make the venue a spot to check out in the next month, when he brings back Brooklyn art-cowpoke Andy Friedman on June 12, lends a stage to Scottsville’s The Honey Dewdrops on June 18 for the release of the group’s first record, If the Sun Will Shine, and outdoes himself with sets by Sarah White, The Invisible Hand and The Extraordinaires on June 20. Seems like a good phase for Falsini and Is.