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ROOTS REVIVAL
Keith Richards shines a light on the second coming of Wingless Angels

Some musicians are just meant to connect, no matter how long it takes for the results to hit a record store. This particular meeting of the minds starts back in late 1972, when the Rolling Stones hopped a plane for an extended layover in Kingston, Jamaica—a fitting locale to “simmer down” and ease into the sessions for Goats Head Soup at Byron Lee’s laid-back Dynamic Sounds Studio. As guitarist Keith Richards would jokingly recall later, it seemed the island was one of the few places north of the equator where the band’s raunchy rockstar status didn’t cause a stir.

“In Jamaica, especially at that time, I was just one of the crowd,” he tells reggae archivist and author Roger Steffens. “The Rasta thing was really popping, and there were a lot of young dreads around, so I started to drift up to the villages, up in the hills. They had no idea who the Rolling Stones were. They didn’t even give a shit. I guess we were just taken at face value, and the fact that we all got to know each other—I mean, my kids would be up in Steer Town for weeks at a time – no problem.”

A stone’s throw from the birthplaces of Burning Spear, Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey, the village of Steer Town overlooks the white sands of Ocho Rios, and lies at the virtual nexus of reggae music’s popular roots. It also happens to be the home turf of a gifted singer named Justin Hinds, who cut his teeth with producer Duke Reid in the early ’60s with the ska hit “Carry Go Bring Come.” Hinds and his vocal group, the Dominoes, exerted a profound influence on a young Bob Marley—so much so that in a chance encounter years later, Marley was moved to leap from behind the steering wheel of his BMW so he could share his gratitude with Hinds personally.

“Justin is numero uno,” Richards says. “He’s a diamond. When he comes to mind or when you hear his voice, you just get a nice warm glow. He was always incredibly attuned to what was going on around him, and he would calm other brothers down if they were getting too jumpy, or stop a fight from going on if he had to. The thing is he wasn’t really reggae. He was more rocksteady or ska—that’s what he was into. And on top of that, man, he had the best threads [laughs]. He was just an incredible dresser. I don’t know if he had the tailors working full time or what, but I’ll always remember his style—it was amazing.”

In 1972, Hinds was 30 years old—a year older than Richards, but still a “young dread” with his perennially youthful good looks. He’d just split from Reid and was between recording projects, so he spent a lot of time up in Steer Town, drumming and chanting with the local Rasta elders. Meanwhile, down on the beach at Mammee Bay, Richards had met a few of Hinds’ neighbors, and was invited up the road to sit in on a real live Nyabinghi grounation (celebration) circle. He was hooked immediately.

“As I listened to what they were playing, I thought, ‘This is something else,’” he remembers. “Justin would never put himself forward because he was so humble, so it took me a couple of years to learn who he was, but I could see that sometimes he was playing the bass drum, and that’s what sets the whole thing up. He gave me the nod to start strumming an acoustic, and because he said it was okay, I think the rest of them had to accept it—otherwise I was still just a listener, you know?”

Eventually the drums were brought down to Richards’ house in Ocho Rios, and over the next 20 years or so, whenever he was in Jamaica (and sometimes when he wasn’t), a core group of drummers and singers, including Hinds, would come over to his house to play. Almost always, a portable tape deck would be rolling to capture the mood. “From ’72 on, I have some incredible cassette recordings—and those things still hang today.”

A full-length album was in the cards, and one day in 1995, the planets aligned when Richards, in the middle of an all-night jam, got a knock at his door. Friend and engineer Rob Fraboni, who had worked with the Stones on Goats Head Soup, happened to have a few days free with a mobile recording truck, and he liked what he heard. He set up three microphones in the front room of the house, and within a week the raw tracks for what would become the first Wingless Angels album were committed to tape. As Richards saw it, the name he’d chosen for the group was apt: each member sang and played as if possessed by a higher power, but they were all right here, walking the earth.

Of course, many rivers have been crossed since Wingless Angels debuted in 1997 on Richards’ Mindless imprint, through a deal with Chris Blackwell and Island Records. Original group member Vincent “Jackie” Ellis passed on just before the album was released. In 2005, Justin Hinds succumbed to lung cancer, and within months of Hinds, drummer Locksley Whitlock died. The story might have ended there had Richards not already had the foresight to roll tape the year before Hinds’ death, this time with a slightly more professional studio setup. It’s been a long time coming, but this second chapter of Wingless Angels is a fitting tribute to Hinds and his brethren.

“You have to remember, nothing was planned —not the first one, and not this one,” Richards says, explaining that the most essential element of any jam with Wingless Angels was the freedom of it; recording it was almost an afterthought, sometimes even a hindrance, so any taping had to be done in a stripped-down, non-intrusive way in order to preserve the natural flow of the music. “You can’t get artsy with the tracks or anything. It is what it is. I realized early on that this was the way I wanted to record this band. They’ve got to feel free just to do it, and that’s it.”

Richards turned to bassist, engineer and producer Brian Jobson to organize the second recording in a friend’s studio space in the Coyaba botanical gardens, above Ocho Rios. “We jammed for a couple nights before we went in,” Jobson recalls, “so there was a continuity going. We just miked up all of the drums, then Justin was to one side with a mic on his voice alone, and he was playing a drum as well. It was very organic, yunno? Justin would just say, ‘Okay, let’s take up a beat,’ and he would start chanting, with the drums going. We’d start in the afternoon and go ’til 11 or 12 o’clock at night.”

By turns sacramental and bluesy, elegiac and uplifting, extra dry and heavy, the songs here burn with the unwavering flame of rightful conviction that fuels all Rasta beliefs. “Shady Tree” is not only emblematic of Hinds’ proverb-like lyricism—a signature going back to his earliest work with the Dominoes—but as a vehicle for his voice, the song demonstrates he’d lost none of the silky and soulful delivery that made, for example, his two late ’70s albums with producer Jack Ruby, Jezebel and Just In Time, such moving roots classics. For his part, Richards is keyed in, as always, to the underlying root melody of the chant, whether in the sustained guitar chords of “Zion Bells” or the sweetly layered riffs, panned in stereo, on the centerpiece track “Oh What A Joy.” Throughout the album, the ever-reliable backing vocals of Maureen Fremantle, Locksley Whitlock, Warrin Williamson and Milton “Neville” Beckerd seem at times either to lift the music skyward (“Band of Angels”) or keep it firmly grounded (“Come Down”), depending on where Hinds and the heartbeat of the drums may lead them.

As Richards likes to describe it, Wingless Angels make “marrow music.” As old as time itself, this is the Nyabinghi style—calling on the drum and voice to make music that cuts right to the bone, stripping away all but the essence, the raw and righteous spirit of the common people. “I think everybody knows what they have to do day in and day out,” Richards observes, “and this music is a way of separating from that, and getting as pure a spirit going as you can. Everybody knows that you’re still living on this earth, and you’re still gonna have to go through whatever you gotta go through, but it’s a release—an uplifting moment where you can actually forget all your sorrows and cares.”