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Wailing Souls founder Winston "Pipe" Matthews has been working on his car.
It's a chore he knows plenty about: During the early '70s, when Bob Marley and other reggae stars were earning international recognition, Matthews usually had his head under a hood. "There was so much struggle within the music business in Jamaica that we had to go look at jobs instead of sing," he says. "We couldn't do much music because we were always working. I was a fuel-injector technician--a good one."
Fortunately, Matthews eventually escaped from the garage. In 1976, he and his partner, Lloyd "Bread" McDonald, began creating some of reggae's most beautiful, enduring music, and they've seldom let up since; the Souls' delicate three- and four-part harmonies are the backbone of 16 albums to date. But even with such an imposing catalogue, the duo's new disc, Psychedelic Souls, stands out as one of its most distinctive. It teams them with the surviving members of Sublime and the horn section from No Doubt for a reggae-fied collection of '60s psychedelia.
According to McDonald, the idea behind Psychedelic Souls isn't as unlikely as it seems. American rock favorites were heard frequently in Trenchtown, the fabled Jamaican ghetto where he and Matthews came of age, and McDonald says he could relate to them.
"Those songs were songs we grew up on, when civil rights was just starting out. You had the hippies in America, while in Jamaica the Rastafari was getting stronger. Most of these songs are carrying a particular message, and the message is still relevant today." He notes that he still has a Jimi Hendrix LP he bought three decades ago.
Of course, the reigning sound in Jamaica back then was reggae, and Matthews and McDonald were immersed in it. They counted Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh as friends and musical companions, and studied with Joe Higgs, the vocal coach employed by Marley and his band, the Wailers. "The music was really a gift," Matthews says. "We had that from day one. But we get a little coaching from Joe--arranging harmonies and things like that."
Still, Matthews feels that the time he spent in Trenchtown was the single biggest influence on his music. He calls those years "a very rough time," but says that he never lost hope. "We were inside the ghetto, but always looking outside at the greater world. There were people all over the world who were going through the same matter. It was that experience that really taught us discipline and respect. That's how we wound up in this time doing the music."
The uncanny similarity between Matthews' reedy tenor and Bob Marley's already well-known voice was both a curse and a blessing. Several producers used the issue as an excuse to pass on the group, and another tried to dodge it by recording the men under handles such as the Renegades, Atarra, and Pipe and the Pipers.
Marley wasn't bothered, however. In fact, he asked Matthews and McDonald to fill in with his combo whenever Tosh and Wailer didn't show up for rehearsals. This connection eventually paid off for the newly named Wailing Souls. "Two or three years after we had put out some singles, people started asking about us," Matthews points out. "Them say, 'What happened to the Wailing
Souls?', and 'Have you heard anything about the Wailing Souls?'"
Fans learned more in 1976, when Matthews and McDonald began issuing classic singles such as "Bredda Gravalicious" and "Row Fisherman Row" on their own label, Massive. Albums like Wild Suspense and Stranded followed, and their quality helped the Souls become one of the few reggae bands to survive the transition from the roots era to the dance-hall revolution. So, too, did the twosome's contributions to 1993's Cool Runnings, a surprisingly successful film about the Jamaican bobsled team that participated in the 1988 Winter Olympics.
"We had a contract with Columbia Records at the time and had just finished a cover of the [Talking Heads] song, 'Wild, Wild Life,'" Matthews says. "We went and had a look at the movie before it had a soundtrack--some of the actors were good friends--and we decided it would be a good song for the movie."
The flick's producers agreed: They used "Wild, Wild Life" and two other songs from the Souls' 1992 album All Over the World, which was later nominated for a Grammy. Matthews and McDonald received more publicity a couple years later when Sublime, then an unknown SoCal band, covered the Souls' tune "War Down at the Pawnshop" on its self-titled debut. The Souls subsequently got to know the members of Sublime, thereby laying the groundwork for Psychedelic Souls.
"We had a little friendship, a little bit of togetherness," Matthews says. "The vibe was right between us and them, so we decided, 'Why you guys not come and play a couple of the songs with us?'"
Reggae fans can be excused for fearing the worst from the Souls' appropriations of unlikely material such as Donovan's "Mountain Sons," Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale" and Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone"; after all, reggae concept albums are ordinarily about as much fun to listen to as Kenny G and/or White House lawyers.
Strangely enough, though, the Souls' versions of the tracks are consistently excellent. Rather than offering bouncy but watered-down renditions, Matthews and McDonald use a '90s garage-dub style that's true to the numbers' psychedelic spirit. "Basically those songs were great songs already," McDonald explains. "So we wanted to inject Jamaican flavor into a fresh sound."
Mission accomplished. Dylan's masterpiece has been beefed up with a crunching guitar and the most infectious riff since Sublime's "What I Got." As for Buffalo Springfield's oft-covered "For What It's Worth," it remains recognizable thanks to its chimey, two-tone signature hook, but fat bass lines and a hip-hop beat take it to another level.
Given the success of this experiment, Wailing Souls fans are already wondering what Matthews and McDonald will try next. But Matthews isn't ready to think about that quite yet. He's got other things to do. "I'm going back outside now to work on my car," he says.
Wailing Souls are scheduled to perform on Thursday October 22, at Jackson Hole, with Let's Go Bowling. Showtime is 8 p.m.