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DC Soundclash: Aye, Claudius

The backstory behind the making of these two recordings featuring roots singer Claudius Linton actually achieved some attention in DC's City Paper recently. Sun King Records was started by longtime DC indie-rockster Ian Jones, who now lives in Baltimore. On a 2006 trip to Jamaica, while mulling about on the beaches in Negril, Jones made the rather happenstance acquaintance of Linton. A long story shortened reveals a musical bonding that took place between the two, with Jones inspired enough to front the money for the reissue of Linton's back catalogue, as well as new studio time for 2008's "Sign Time."

You'd have to say that was a bold move for someone who knew little about the reggae world. And as far as reissue compilations go, "Roots Master" is a decently put-together little package, showcasing a singer who might otherwise have languished in relative obscurity. The accompanying 10-minute "behind-the-scenes" video shows two gents that clearly have grown fond of one another. One cheers for this revival project, though Jones lets his newfound bias get the better of him with the opening caption claiming Linton "invented" the roots reggae style of singing.

Linton's is a rich, evocative voice with a gruff gentleness to it that reminds of fellow '70s roots icon Burning Spear. Linton's hit song "Crying Time" (and the accompanying Tubby's dub) put him on the roots aficionado's map, and throughout you can hear his vocals reach strongly for an impact that is defining of "conscious" roots reggae. That big production sound of the mid-70s (so majestically defined by backing band Soul Syndicate) was always going to suit a voice like Linton's, and he rides an almost exact vibe on 1975's "Put Your Shoulder To Jah Wheel." These are the high points of what was a sporadic recording career, and they provide the first two tracks to this compilation of Linton's various singles from 1969-1986.

Many of the singers that thrived in the '70s got their start in that mint vocal era of the '60s, and so it was with Linton who was part of the late '60s duo the Hofner Brothers. The reggaematic 1969 skinhead skank that is "Woman Wash Your Hair" is a fun example of that genre, but you can hear Linton's voice looking for higher ground. And so we make it to the later decades eventually in this narrative, with Linton's aesthetic finally petering out during the digitized era of the '80s.

It's this soulful, R&B and country-influenced sound of Linton's that lay dormant over the last twenty years, a fact that comes as no surprise to those of us who've seen the direction of Jamaican music. The old musicians remain, of course, scattered about and occasionally employed in the old studios. Names like Horsemouth Wallace (drummer & "star" of the Rockers movie), Ansel Collins, Dwight Pinkney and Dean Fraser you can find on any number of roots era LPs, and here they all are again, sitting in Marley's Tuff Gong studio, recording an album with a faded old singer and an improbable "producer" from Baltimore. The result surprised me.

Title track "Sign Time" can hold its head up as a wonderfully sung modern roots song. Jones' own vocals are an oddly different accompaniment in the pan-African reggae vibe, but I have to give full credit to "Jonah" Jones (Linton's pet name for Jones) and his ability to connect where Linton and he are essentially sharing communion: soulful, inflected roots music, wherever it may be found. "Sign Time", "Windows of My Mind," and "So Wrapped Up" are all classic roots tunes, with Linton and Jones harmonizing throughout in the soulful tradition reggae fans have become accustomed to. On "Lonely Nights" Jones gets a few solo bars, and the song's distinct pop-soul inflections will not necessarily convince reggae heads, but the tone of musicians and singers alike is assured and natural, an indication of Jamaica's native love of these very American pop sounds.

"Put Your Shoulder to Jah Wheel"
Claudius Linton

Roots Master
Sun King Records, 2007 (1976)

"Sign Time"
Kingman & Jonah featuring Claudius Linton

Sign Time
Sun King Records, 2008

It's hard to shake free from the sense that this record belonged in 1976 somehow, so strong do the influences reveal themselves. But on "Baghdad," Linton takes a current topic and, with acoustic guitar in hand, crafts a sorrowful paean to the dying that is remarkable both for its melancholy and its vaguely experimental production. The likes have never been recorded by a Jamaican artist, I have to think, and Jones' influence is perhaps at play here.

Whether Linton's career can take off again is uncertain, but to be rejoiced in is the fact that a tourist's willing and trained ear came across a fellow artist's beating heart that still had expressions to bring to light.

Mark Williams
kaiser@dcsoundclash.com

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