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Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2009

Eric Blowtorch: The Jamaican Connection

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Making connections proved easier for Eric Blowtorch than he could ever have expected. A longtime fan of reggae and all forms of Jamaican music, the singer had been flavoring his intense brand of soulful, political rock with island influences since the early ’80s. One day in 1993 he called Kingston directory assistance, asking for Duckie Simpson of Black Uhuru. A legendary figure among reggae fans, Simpson readily agreed to record a single in Milwaukee with Blowtorch, “God’s Will Be Done.”

And that wasn’t the end of it. In the following years, Blowtorch and his shifting cast of local collaborators have recorded with acclaimed reggae session players Keith Sterling and Bagga Walker along with Rico Rodriguez and Prince Jazzbo and the late Roland Alphonso and Coxsone Dodd.

“The stereotype of Jamaican musicians is that they’ve been screwed at every turn and are very conscious of money. I’ve found Jamaican musicians to be willing to work for little or no money if they like the project, ” Blowtorch says. “I’ve found working with them to be a gracious experience.”

A prolific recording artist always willing to share the microphone with guest stars, Blowtorch’s musical endeavors have been more a vocation in the traditional sense than a career. He has reached a new height on his latest album with his band the Welders, The Alphabet. The disc was inspired in part by his experience working as a volunteer in 2007 at Kingston’s Alpha Boys’ School, an institution that has nurtured many fine musicians.

“I got involved with the school band by chance,” Blowtorch recalls. “I was playing melodica in the field one evening and a crowd of students gathered around. We just started playing together every evening. I was honored to play with the Alpha Boys’ Band at a school assembly and at a church across the road. It was the most nervous I’ve ever been on stage. The Alpha Boys’ Band has a reputation to protect!”

Milwaukee’s Shane Olivo recorded The Alphabet in his home studio with long-distance contributions by Rico Rodriguez from London and Prince Jazzbo from Kingston’s famed Tuff Gong studio. Voices and bits of sonic ambience recorded by Blowtorch during his Jamaican sojourn are sprinkled in the mix. The tempos swing between the easygoing reggae of “Living Larger Than Life” to the insistent Motown pulse of “12,000 Criminals” and the merry backbeat of “Sidewalk Soul Connection.”

Blowtorch and the Welders share a gift for melody as well as social criticism. “Eric usually has the big picture of the song and the nuances were added by the guys,” says Blowtorch’s longtime percussionist Nate Vest, describing the collaboration. Many songs amount to a musical history tour of Milwaukee, from nods to James Cameron of the Black Holocaust Museum and the rich legacy of the Socialist Party to the city’s infrastructure and quality of life.

The lyrical tone is upbeat. “Radical optimism is the truly punk rock gesture of today,” Blowtorch says. “There’s no point in always complaining and complaining,” he adds, perhaps alluding to the hopeful, spiritual dimension behind the political anger that was always the strength of the reggae music he loves.

Eric Blowtorch & the Welders (and a roomful of guest stars) perform Friday, Dec. 11, at Y-Not III.

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