By Ian S. Port,
Titan Ups Launch a Rocksteady Dance Party at Cafe Du Nord
Â Better than: What the uninitiated think reggae sounds like.
There are times when musical innovation is the last thing needed, and last night at Cafe Du Nord — the first Thursday of 2011 — was one of them. Headlining were Titan Ups, a local rocksteady ensemble obsessed with maintaining absolute allegiance to Jamaica-descended music of the 1970s, from Toots and the Maytals to the Kingstonians to the Specials, through both covers and original songs.Â But unlike so many wannabe reggae bands, Titan Ups weren’t an utter embarrassment. In fact, it’s hard to see how their show last night was anything other than a total, terrifically fun success. With original-issue songs and a casual, funny demeanor, the seven-piece outfit stroked aÂ medium-weight Cafe Du Nord crowd into the kind of joyful, freewheeling dance party you rarely see anymore.
â€‹What made this fun, thrilling, and not at all embarrassing was largely the chops with which this all-white ensemble played, and the attention its members paid to the subtle inflections of their elders. Early reggae and rocksteady are pretty basic styles of music on the surface, but start paying attention to the details of a great band like Toots and the Maytals, and you realize there’s a lot more to it than just a couple of up-strummed chords. You could even go so far as to say that reggae and its related styles, all of which use the basic offbeat rhythm, depend on the subtle inflections of players to emphasize changes in the music. (The singer has a lot to do with it, too, but we’ll get to that later). Titan Ups showed an incredible grasp of these details last night.Â Every cowbell roll, guitar pluck, and piano chord change was handled with the lazy precision of an authentic rocksteady band. Instrumentally, their set sounded like a Trojan Records compilation. The band didn’t try to add a new-age twist or otherwise shift the attitude of the songs, leaving them exactly as they should have been.
Then there was Titan Ups frontman Bob Reed, a gray-bearded S.F. music vet of massive proportions blessed with a thick, soulful voice eerily well-suited to this type of music. Unlike pretty much every other person in the room, Reed didn’t sway to the band’s seductive beats. He rarely ever looked at the crowd. Instead, he just stood at the front of the stage, dressed in a plain white T-shirt and jeans, and belted out hits like “54-46 Was My Number,” “Bla Bla Bla,” and the band’s originals, which also sound like authentic rocksteady hits. No fakeish Jamaican inflection/imitation, just a throaty, warm voice. Like the rest of Titan Ups, Reed demonstrated that sometimes, putting musical authenticity over originality is the only way to go.
Reality check: About the only thing you can complain about at a show like this is that every song pretty much sounds the same — the only variation is tempo and key. Titan Ups played a sweet take on Dennis Brown’s slow, minor-key “Let Me Down Easy,” early on that provided about as much sonic variation as we got through the whole 70-minute set. But despite the sameness, Titan Ups kept the crowd swaying gleefully the whole time.
The crowd: Honestly, I forgot that there are still kids rockin’ the skinhead look, but it made me really happy to remember. Oh, and dude with a tri-hawk wearing a suit and tie, you rule. It was these young’ns doing the ska up front, and a mixed crowd of posh-looking ladies, established over-30 dudes, and even a few random hipsters in back.
The opener: Missed Franco Nero, so please tell us how they were in the comments. Caught Wicked Mercies, a massive soul/funk revival outfit that elicited almost as much dancing as Titan Ups. The highlight of their set — by far — was when guest singer Marvin Holland came up to sing the old Rodger Collins funk number “Foxy Girls in Oakland,” a standout on the (freaking essential) Bay Area Funk compilation.
Shameless request: I would kill to see Reed and Titan Ups do “Singer Man,” a stunning Kingstonians number I didn’t hear last night. (Maybe the spectacularly awful UB40 cover ruined it for everyone, but I hope not.)
Come and Rocksteady at Con Brio and Songbird Festival Presents – Music to Freak to Series – A Monthly Saturday Night Soulstice
853 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
21 and Over
Event – 8 p.m. – 1:30 a.m.