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A Family Affair: I Grade Showcase Brings V.I. Vibes to San Francisco

A Family Affair: I Grade Showcase Brings V.I. Vibes to San Francisco

A Family Affair: I Grade Showcase Brings V.I. Vibes to San Francisco

By on - Photos by Jessica Dore - Comment

An all-star line-up featuring Niyorah, Toussaint, Tippy I, Andrew "Bassie" Campbell, Tuff Lion and more blessed the Bay Area with one of this summer's standout shows.


We've all been to shows that run late with too many openers and long set breaks where promoters bite their nails waiting for the room to fill up while the audience loses steam. Such was not the case at one of the first stops on the I Grade family tour through the northwest U.S. at San Franciso's Rockit Room on August 12. The show boasted an all-star line-up: The Jah Current Band featuring opener Tuff Lion and Whealen on guitars, T-Rock on drums, the humble heavyweight, Jamaican producer Andrew “Bassie” Campbell on bass (naturally), I Grade founder and producer Laurent “Tippy I” Alfred on keyboards and Celebrity Hornz’ Balboa Becker on trombone and Daniel Casares on sax.

Before it was even clear that Tuff Lion, who niced up the place with a roots and culture vibe and guitar skills to boot was through on the mic (partly because he merely dropped back to support Toussaint and later Niyorah in the band), Toussaint was on stage in gauze-white threads like he was fresh off the islands (he's actually based in the northeast U.S. but has been inducted into the I Grade family per his debut solo release 'Black Gold'). Beginning with an evocative Nobody Knows, he coasted through the resonant refrain “nobody knows what I did today, only me, me and the most high. Nobody knows if I prayed today, only me, me and the most high.”

Full disclosure: I can relate to Toussaint and I like him that much more for it. I, too, am from Massachusetts, and before reggae took over my life I was heavy into the funk, jazz, and fusion-jam scene, where horn-driven funk outfit (and Toussaint’s old band) Soulive are a beloved staple. Of course, there are some key differences between us, too. Perhaps most notably that I have very little musical talent while Toussaint is just gushing with it. His soul and gospel background is evident in the soars and dips of his smooth, roller coaster vocals; his sheer punch-packing force; and the star-of-the-drama-class energy of a fresh heartbreak (as though he’d found his lover with another in a backstage bedroom before the show). Of course he’s not the only one out there now doing quality, full-blown soul singing, but the way he folds skillful interpretations of traditional, no-holds-barred, unabashed soul into the deeply roots, mystical, easy-winding vibes that define Tippy’s I Grade projects makes him stand out. Now inevitably lumped into a genre of chanters and Rasta-chat rockers, he’s a soul-reggae pioneer casting off into relatively uncharted territory among the reggae landscape.

As he powered through tunes like This Song, which is his ultra-humble reminder to whom all praises are due, Roots in a Modern Time, and Be You, the vibes were thick, like a family reunion, even complete with one older gentleman (picture your uncle, grandfather, or neighbor) who sat directly in front of the stage, leaning on a cane, eyes closed, singing every word.

Just moments after I’d begun to think, “this brother is the reggae Marvin Gaye,” (who, in his own right was as “roots and culture” as they come) Toussaint launched into Inner City Blues then merged seamlessly into What’s Going On. Honestly, it was one of those moments when things come full circle; everything makes sense; you remember why all your experiences, no matter how small or large, were instrumental in your being. His mini-Marvin-medley made me wanna holler, alright, but the blues were far, far away. (Side note: Give thanks for Toussaint launching the reintegration of Marvin into my daily selections. I’ve pulled up Got to Give It Up five times during this paragraph alone.)

“You’ve heard all these people for years talking about diaspora, pan-Africanism, and these kinds of concepts. And this is something that people have kind of lost contact with. But on this tour, we have Jamaica represented, St. Thomas is represented, the states are represented, St. Croix is represented. We’re all here, we’ve all come together and people are feeling that unity,” Toussaint said. “And so, it’s even more blessed because what we have in our midst is a representation of unity between some groups of people that have historically been at each other’s throats, and made to be that way.”

Soon Niyorah was on stage starting with Nothing to Prove from his second album, 'Purification Session'. The live version of the technically laid back, easy rocking self-love anthem was simultaneously explosive; an appropriate introduction to the well-balanced Niyorah; positive yet conscious, steeped in ethics yet humbly nonjudgmental.

The Celebrity Hornz shone with groovy, swinging contributions during tunes like Turn Around the Garrison, and Feel Your Presence, the latter whose album version lacks horn parts but is instead thickened with a boost from angelic, faraway sounds of female back-ups. In lieu of the ladies, Tippy blessed the live version (and the whole set) with supporting vocals while he laid the foundation of a predominantly one-drop set on keyboards. At his side was the coy Andrew “Bassie” Campbell, a true riddim sorcerer, a smiling Buddha of bass enlightenment who as I mentioned earlier is almost evasively humble. If you don’t know you’re a Bassie fan, now you know: The acclaimed Jamaican producer has worked with everyone (Tony Rebel, Junior Reid, The Itals, to name a few) and now, he’s brought to you Niyorah. He co-produced Niyo’s most recent acclaimed album 'Feel Your Presence,' the first of four from the artiste to be produced in Jamaica. Now, Bassie’s treating the northwest U.S. to his expertise on a tour with Niyorah and the I Grade crew.

“Everybody in the band is humble. Yeah, that’s a big difference. Everybody is professional because everybody has their own production going too, you know. So to make it right, everybody intense. At the same time everybody free. It’s like, good vibes. It’s a good energy, I love the vibes. It’s really different,” said Campbell discussing the differences between touring and working with the I Grade crew and others he’s worked with during his expansive career in reggae.

Niyorah’s performance style is very free-spirited, bold and deliberate but without the rigidity of an older artist who might feel trapped in a box from years of his own making. There’s an openness, like the freeness of being young and running screaming through a department store, playing hide and seek in the wools and tweeds of the clothing racks, or all the other fun “first thought, best thought” things you do before you learn to fear other human’s judgements. And then he has moments of wisdom beyond age, deep spiritual maturity and critical observations.

“Oscar Grant was a sacrifice,” he told the crowd, referring to the unarmed black man who was shot in the back (while face down) and killed in Oakland by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009. Just a few weeks after the verdict, which convicted officer Johannes Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter, was read aloud, many Bay Area residents already seem to have forgotten. But Grant’s example is a reminder of the all too common disregard for the inherent value of every life. A contemplative crowd welcomed a smooth segue into socially conscious tune Clowns Around Us.

The continuous set, which spanned from Tuff Lion to Toussaint through Niyorah without stopping wrapped up with a full family number during which both Toussaint and Bay Area chanter Luv Fyah joined in for an explosive farewell. The unidentified boom tune was on a ramped up one-drop and featured melodic chanting of, Renegade, Revolutionary and a laundry list of examples of such, including Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Toussaint, Jah Current Band, California and “I and I people.”

“The music, the point of what we try to do is for healing through sound. That’s the slogan we use, ‘spreading musical ises and healing from St. Croix to across the world.’ So, once the music is touching me first and I know it’s touching people on a level as far as lyrical content, then I check for it. But quality is quality. We call it I Grade, so we have to have obviously great vocals and great sound, and you know this is what we look for. Artists like Niyorah and Toussaint, they live up to that to the fullest.,” said Laurent “Tippy” Alfred on his vision and mission with the I Grade label.

The set lasted about two and a half hours but it didn’t take long to notice that all these guys do is smile. Don’t get me wrong, they have their moments and they bring a conscious message, but when I looked through my photos from the show, I was hard pressed to find a shot of Toussaint not looking like he’d just won the Mass Millions. The thing is, it’s infectious. And reggae, even recognizing its clout as a tool for socio-political commentary and change, should make you feel good. There were very few moments throughout the night that weren’t punctuated with the whites of teeth, from the barstools to the stage.

Photos copyright Jessica Dore 2010
Reproduction without permission of United Reggae and Jessica Dore is prohibited.

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