What do Sly Stone, Nike Drake, Black Sabbath, Radiohead, and Joni Mitchell all have in common? For one thing, they all recorded iconic albums that have become creative grist for the indispensable Bay Area production team UnderCover Presents. Treating seminal recordings as texts ripe for deconstruction and reinterpretation, UnderCover concerts bring together a confoundingly diverse cast of bands to re-imagine beloved albums, track by track -- and each band records its assigned song before the UnderCover performance for an album distributed to concertgoers as part of the ticket price.
Following January’s triumphant reprise of Sly and the Family Stone’s Stand! at the Fox Theater, UnderCover returns to the Independent on April 3-5 with guest producer Rupa Marya overseeing a program devoted to Bob Marley’s classic 1977 album Exodus. As the leader of the insistently cosmopolitan, politically engaged Bay Area band Rupa and the April Fishes, Marya says she was drawn to Exodus by its “perfect balance, its very deep articulation of political struggle and outright sexual celebratory happiness.” She offered her thoughts on the album's songs and UnderCover’s reimagined versions during a series of phone conversations conducted between her 18-month-old son’s naps.
1. “Natural Mystic” by Broun Fellinis featuring Femi Andrades
“The slow intro gives ‘Natural Mystic’ a real prophetic feel. The song really speaks to an undivided experience of consciousness, of people’s unity with each other and nature. There’s a Biblical reference to the trumpet, but it’s also the wake-up call, that everyone needs to unite as politicians try to divide us. I loved working with David Boyce and I’m a big fan of Kevin Carnes. Their version of the song goes into a very raw and open space by the end, with a very Afro-soul feel to it.”
2. “So Much Things to Say” by SHAKE YOUR PEACE!
“Gabe Dominguez, the leader of SHAKE YOUR PEACE!, wanted to do ‘One Love,’ but I said 'I want to hear what you do with this.' When he listened to it, he said I had no idea that the song was so awesome. The album starts with songs that aren’t as well-known. They’re not the songs on Legend. But Marley’s lyric ‘When the rain falls, it don’t fall on one man’s housetop’ is such a brilliant way of encapsulating the idea that we are all in this together. SHAKE YOUR PEACE! has ‘so much things to say right now’ about peak carbon, peak oil, and what’s happening to our water and the possibility of ecotopia. I think Gabe and his crew gave the song a spin that’s empowering and uplifting.”
3. “Guiltiness” by FogDub
“This song and the next one, ‘The Heathen,’ are so much in the same vein. ‘Guiltiness’ is calling out the greed that we see dominating around the world. ‘Woe to the downpressers.’ ‘These are the big fish who always try to eat down the small fish.’ It’s prophetic now as it was then, with 1% of the world's population amassing 50% of its wealth. One of the exciting things about being musical director was I got to ask bands that I’ve played with and love to participate, and I knew they would shine. But I also got to start investigating bands I didn’t know, like FogDub, who do this trippy blend of dub and electronica. Their version is largely instrumental, and it’s very haunting and will stick with you.”
4. “The Heathen” by Rupa & The April Fishes
“This is a lesser-known track, and I love the way Bob Marley and the band played it with this inexorable feel. There’s this menacing quality to the music. For our version, we asked, 'What, or who, are the heathens?' and decided it represents a pre-colonial mentality that exists in all of us. When we did our bicycle music tour in 2012 around the San Francisco Bay, we collaborated with Antonio M of the Costanoan Ohlone tribe. We took the reggae song and changed the meter to fit the pulse of a California Native Welcome song that Antonio sings. I wrote some lyrics about climate and water and referenced the international movement of First Nations that I support -- Idle No More. The second part of our rendition we didn’t record for the album out of respect for tribal sovereignty, but the audience will get to experience a second Welcome song blended perfectly with ska.”
5. “Exodus” by Empress Unification & Fyah Squad Band
“Such a great song! It’s a call to action, to get people moving. Marley describes where we’re living as Babylon, where corporate greed dominates basic human needs. It’s obviously extremely relevant in San Francisco where many of us have been pushed out of our housing, starting with the Ohlone right on up to the working class, the artists, the musicians, and the teachers today. ‘Exodus’ speaks to the history of people being forced to leave, and people trying to leave Babylon. We absolutely must create alternatives. We found Empress Unification when we were looking for different local reggae bands. They’re not big yet, but they’re great and beautiful, and the pluralism of their feminine voices was something we loved.”
6. “Jamming” by Black Nature Band
“Black Nature was an original member of the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars, and we’ve been friends for several years. We were both on the same label and we just started hanging out when he moved to the Bay Area about four years ago. He’s come up several times to sing with us, and what he brings to the stage is living fire. I’m so excited that he did this song about that spirit of peace and unity and good feeling that comes about when people partake in cannabis together. Jamming is something musicians do very well. And most musicians I know are glad to know they won't go to jail for it.”
7. “Waiting In Vain” by Sean Hayes
“That was a no-brainer to want Sean Hayes to do this song, stripped down as bare as he could do it with just a bassist. It’s probably one of Marley’s best-known songs, and Sean just nails it playing acoustic. It’s such a beautiful simple song and it’s great to hear Sean Hayes put it out there with all its raw beauty. It’s definitely a show stopper.”
8. “Turn Your Lights Down Low” by Quartet San Francisco featuring Boots Riley & Silk E
“This is definitely an only-in-UnderCover track! Boots Riley has been a friend for several years. He sang on our album Este Mundo, and I’m a big fan of Boots and the Coup. He’s wanted to do an UnderCover, but when I first approached him, he said ‘I’ve sworn off Bob Marley for a while. I’ve listened to him way too much.’ But I just finished recording an album with Jeremy Cohen’s Quartet San Francisco and said, ‘Hey Boots, how about doing ‘Turn Your Lights Down Low’ with a string quartet?’ and it ended up evolving into a strange and wonderful mash-up rendition that has the breathtaking Silk-E on vocals too.”
9. “Three Little Birds” by T Sisters
When I came home from the hospital with my son, this was the first song I sang to him to get him to calm down in the rocking chair. I remember being really affected by singing it to him again and again. It’s a classic example of the deep and universal reach of Bob Marley’s sound and hopefulness. I wanted it done by three female voices singing in three-part harmony. I had heard about the T Sisters, who really are sisters, through the grapevine. The arrangement they produced, how it moves and flows, is stunning.
10. “One Love” by Brass Band Mission
We wanted to start and end the show with bookends of unity. The Broun Fellinis open with a more esoteric, abstract piece, and we’re closing with brass-band party music that allows all the different musicians to get up and participate with our voices. It’s a call for hope and unity and vision. Bob Marley has a way of evoking his spirituality in a raw and basic way, and I love that about this song. The album talks about these divides and uses language like ‘we’ and ‘they,’ calling out the greedy. ‘Us’ and ‘them’ has a place in our rhetoric, but if we get stuck there we create hell for ourselves in this life. We miss an opportunity for ‘us’ and for ‘them’ to evolve -- a place of real dialogue. Brass Band Mission takes the song out of the venue and into the streets, where we live and love.