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When it comes to reggae festivals, the common thread among the bands is usually made out of hemp. However, the acts you'll see performing Saturday, March 15, at sunny Tempe Beach Park extend far beyond reggae and hip-hop grassroots genre's status quo. In fact, the four headliners — Rebelution, Atmosphere, Pepper, and Iration — have grown to be influential in their own rights.
It's not just about carrying a positive vibe and being musically talented. For a collective 50-plus years, these four bands have prevailed as independent, artistic vehicles that helped evolve the grassroots genre. And all of them are releasing new music in 2014.
"Three of the four bands obviously have a reggae element, while Atmosphere has made their name in hip-hop," says Iration's vocalist/guitarist Micah Pueschel. "I think we've all built our fan bases on good music and the grassroots and independent style."
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Indeed, the most hip-hop-oriented group on the bill, Atmosphere, known for its introspective songwriting, settles in well with the mellow reggae acts.
"Last summer, while on tour with Slightly Stoopid, I saw how similar our audiences were," says Slug, who, with DJ/producer Ant, founded Atmosphere in the early '90s. "At a show like this one, all of the bands realize that we are all parts to a sum that is greater than us."
To be released in May, Atmosphere's seventh album, Southsiders, is all about feeling fortunate, whether it is just about being alive or fans' acceptance of the band's evolution.
"One of the things that separates us from some of our rap contemporaries is that our audience doesn't really care about who's cooler than who," Slug says. "People just come to let it out, and we're fortunate in that respect."
Rock reggae group Rebelution also is releasing an album in May. Ten years ago, the five-piece band began to build momentum with consistent local shows and an independently released EP. Since then, it's kicked out three full-lengths, with the new record its first since 2012.
"This upcoming album has a bit of everything: experimentation, graphic evolution, guest artists," says Rebelution's Eric Rachmany. "We really had the option to seek out anyone we wanted to work with. But we decided the best way to do this album was to do it ourselves, how we've always done it. Being in control of our own music and record it in-house."
Reggae-rock trio Pepper can relate. In 1999, Pepper gained the interest of an independent label, which put out the band's debut record, an amalgam of dancehall, reggae, hip-hop, and rock. After several more albums, Pepper released in 2013 its first album (made with engineer Matt Wallace) on which the members felt they really displayed their eagerness to learn.
"We were ready to listen and take responsibility to make a really great record. After our extended stay in that musical college, we really branched out," says vocalist/bassist Bret Bollinger. "We've never been afraid to write any kind of music, but now we have the ability and the time to really elaborate on so many stories."
The band is releasing new music this summer but isn't sure in what form or fashion.
Iration is in the same boat, excitedly writing and recording material but unsure of an exact release date. The five-piece reggae dub-rock group's style shifts from album to album, greatly depending upon the band's mood and current life events.
"The new stuff has almost been a throwback to [2010's] Time Bomb-style, where it is more beat-driven," Pueschel says. "Some of [2013's] Automatic's tracks were darker. So this new stuff seems more light and fun to play."
No matter what, all four bands are looking forward to warm weather in Arizona — as well as the state's fans.
"As far as the scene and the people that come to our shows, man, it's some of the best connecting I get to do in my job," Slug says.
"We'll spend the weekend in Arizona to hang with friends and play a great show with some of our favorite bands," adds Pepper's Bollinger. "If you can't have a good time doing that, you need to re-think your life."