This weekend the wooded hills of Brown County will reverberate to the mystic, uplifting sounds of live reggae music. The first annual Kneadmore Reggae Festival is scheduled for Friday, Aug. 23 and Saturday, Aug. 24 in the Kneadmore community field near Needmore, Ind., in northwestern Brown County.
Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals
Featuring Jamaican reggae legends Toots & The Maytals, premier U.S. reggae band John Brown"s Body, the African fusion of Jabali Afrika and more, this two-day festival has a top-ranking lineup guaranteed to soothe the soul in these troubled times. Factor in the sublime and open environment of the festival grounds and you have a setting that couldn"t be better for celebrating the end of summer. The Kneadmore Reggae Festival, envisioned and organized by a tight-knit group of Bloomington and Brown County reggae aficionados, looks to establish itself as Indiana"s premier annual reggae event. The location of the festival has a colorful history of its own. A large tract of land near Needmore was established as a rural commune back in 1970. Like most experiments in communal living, Needmore has had many ups and downs since then. These days, the area is a mellow mix of private ownership and 400 acres that are still owned communally, including the festival field. Many a festival was held here in the 1970s, featuring the cream of the crop from the Bloomington and Brown County music scenes. Then the community"s energy to organize music events waned. That energy picked up again in the mid-"90s. Some of the original Needmore crew and a younger generation of like-minded folks (including some who grew up there) began to take advantage of their large open field"s potential for music festivals. Bordered on the south by a gorgeous Brown County forest ridgeline, the wide, level and open community field is a natural place for large gatherings of music fans to dig the sounds from its hillside stage. There is also ample room for parking and camping, with a major bonfire area perfect for late-night drum circles. In recent years, this festival field has hosted fund-raising events like Otterfest (raising funds for otter re-introduction throughout Indiana), Wang Dang Doodle (a benefit for Bloomington"s Mother Hubbard"s Cupboard food pantry) and the Kneadmore Hootenanny. Headlining the festival on Saturday is "the grandfather of reggae," Toots Hibbert and his band The Maytals. To call Toots "grandfather" is a bit misleading. His performance last year at The Bluebird in Bloomington showed him to be in amazing form. Toots still performs with the gusto of someone in his mid-20s, with vocal energy that barely needs a microphone, busting out dance moves that would send most other 50-somethings to the cardiac center. Forty years ago, Toots Hibbert was part of the original front-line of reggae music, before this music even had a name. Toots first recorded his blend of Jamaican rhythms mixed with gospel vocals and R&B grooves with legendary producer Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd in 1962. In the mid-"60s, along with DJ and producer Prince Buster, Toots" upbeat Jamaican dance music hit the charts in Jamaica and England with a new dancehall sensation, "ska." In 1966, Hibbert was sidelined due to a marijuana bust. He came back strong in 1968 with the sound that remains his classic reggae/soul mix. Smash hits like "54-46 (That"s My Number)," "Do the Reggay," "Monkey Man" and "Pressure Drop" quickly launched Toots & The Maytals into international orbit. Chris Blackwell signed the band to his fledgling Island Records in 1970, breaking out their instant classic album Funky Kingston. Along with the early work of Island labelmates Bob Marley and The Wailers, Toots & The Maytals were the bedrock foundation of much that followed on the reggae music scene. Distinctive in his short Afro instead of dreads, Toots has always stuck closer to American soul and gospel roots than his Rasta brethren. Toots" sound-of-soul is best summed up on his 1988 album, Toots in Memphis, where he pays homage to the Stax Records sound on its home turf. Headlining Friday"s lineup at the Kneadmore Reggae Festival is John Brown"s Body, a contemporary band embodying the best in traditional Jamaican roots and vibes, with a fresh approach for 21st century roots reggae. Based in Boston, this nine-piece touring powerhouse brings forth a mighty combination of roots reggae grooves, potent horn lines, dub-wise mixology and a fresh lyrical approach that is conscious and uplifting without repeating rote Rasta cliches. Engaging songs about positive approaches to human relations and the environment are served up sincerely by JBB"s lead singer, Kevin Kinsella, backed with harmony vocals reminiscent of the sweet sounds of The Heptones or Israel Vibration. Their newest release on Shanachie/I-Town Records, Spirits All Around Us, breaks new ground with modern production embellishments while the core of the music stays true to roots form. Acknowledged as the best domestic reggae band in the U.S., John Brown"s Body plays festivals and clubs from coast to coast. Before traveling to the wilds of Brown County for this festival, the band plays New York City"s Mercury Lounge with John Scofield. Another highlight of the Kneadmore Reggae Festival will be Jabali Africa, hailing from the East African land of Kenya. Formed in 1993 by performers from Kenya"s National Theater Dance Troupe, Jabali Africa has a kinetic contemporary sound rooted in the traditions of the past. The four members of Jabali Afrika specialize in original songs based in a fusion of African musical traditions, laced with a funky sensibility reminiscent of New Orleans" Meters, enhanced by choreographed and spontaneous dance. Jabali Afrika has toured much of the globe to present their infectious performances to diverse audiences in Europe, Japan and the United States. Their most recent album is Journey. Besides their full band performance at the Kneadmore Reggae Festival, Jabali Afrika will be presenting a drum workshop on Saturday afternoon. Drummers from all experience levels are encouraged to bring drums and participate. Rounding out the festival lineup are regional reggae favorites Gizzae out of Chicago; the roots/dancehall fusion of Daddy Roots from the Caribbean island of Anguilla; singer/songwriter Vince Farcetta, who performs reggae on six-string banjo; and the Appalachian reggae vibes of Natural Healing out of Asheville, N.C. Those planning to camp the entire weekend are encouraged to bring coolers and camping supplies for their stay at the festival, but to leave dogs at home. A variety of foods and beverages will be available, as well as arts and crafts. The Kneadmore Reggae Festival weekend will also feature reggae DJs spinning live mixes. To get to the festival site from Indianapolis take State Road 135 south through Trafalgar and Morgantown, then head west on State Road 45 at Bean Blossom, 7 miles to Needmore. Turn left on Plum Creek Road, where, less than a mile on your right, you will find the festival gate. If you are driving from Bloomington, take State Road 45 east for 12.5 miles, then turn right on Plum Creek Road. Tickets for the Kneadmore Reggae Festival are $35 in advance, $40 at the gate. The festival gates open at 2 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 23. Advance tickets are available in Indianapolis at Magic Bus, 6503 Ferguson St. in Broad Ripple. Tickets are available in Bloomington at Dharma Emporium, 221 E. Kirkwood and 420, 107 N. Dunn. You can find the festival"s Web page at www.kneadreggae.com. Major reggae music shows are scarce in Indiana, save for a few well-attended club shows booked and attended by the faithful in Bloomington and Indianapolis. The Kneadmore Reggae Festival should prove to be an excellent outdoor weekend showcase for a music that has stood tough and passed the test of time. Jim Manion, program/music director of WFHB Bloomington Community Radio (91.3/98.1FM), has written about music for area publications longer than he cares to admit.