Featured Music: Wednesday, December 26, 2002
Smokin’ Joe

Pablo and the Hemphill 7find inspiration in reggae’s redemptive powers.


The year was 1979, and Bob Marley’s ex-partner in the Wailers, Peter Tosh, was playing the Palladium on Northwest Highway in Dallas. He’d just released a record on the Rolling Stones’ label and appeared on Saturday Night Live with Mick Jagger. Although Dallas had a sizable Jamaican community, the house was mostly Anglos drawn by the Stones connection. When Tosh kicked off “African,” a song of global black unity (“Don’t know where you come from / But as long as you’re a black man / You’re an African”), my friend said, “This is the moment — he’s either going to win them or lose them.” At the end of the song, Tosh stepped to the mic and asked, “Is reggae music not a great music?” The crowd roared, the sweet pungent aroma of herb filled the room, and the outcome was clear: The healing and redemptive power of reggae had won over the North Texans.

Cut to the present. On a spring-like Saturday afternoon in November, Pablo and the Hemphill 7 are playing on a makeshift stage in front of the Fort Worth Rail Market, in the shadows of the Ramada Inn and Fort Worth Convention Center. Later this evening, they’ll be at the Flying Saucer in Sundance Square. The crowd starts out small, but it grows as the sun sets and the band’s two-hour set progresses to include a cross-section of Rail Market visitors — from little kids to twentysomethings to senior citizens. They’re relatively sedate, but by the end of the performance, they’re all on Pablo’s beam, heads bobbing, feet patting to reggae classics like Marley’s “Trenchtown Rock” and “Small Axe” or Tosh’s “Stepping Razor” and “Don’t Blame the Youth,” as well as Hemphill 7 originals like “Little Man and Chiva Joe” (a true tale of Fort Worth criminality) and a haunting, Radiohead-like piece called “The Great Bash.”

Frontman Joseph Vano tosses his lion’s mane of hair as he prowls the stage and sings in a gruff but melodic voice with more than a hint of Tosh in it. Marcus Lawler’s burbling bass and Damien Stewart’s loose-limbed drums provide a supple, syncopated flow, demonstrating a mastery of the challenging intricacies of a deceptively simple-sounding style. Keyboardist Justin Pate, looking like a very hip 12-year-old getting loose at the end of a piano lesson, mixes another layer of rhythm with weird-ass sound effects, his higher vocal range playing Marley to Vano’s Tosh. Guitarist Steffin Ratliff uses a battery of effects to shape his rock-based sound in the manner of great reggae lead players like Al Anderson and Donald Kinsey. (If you’re counting, that’s five; there are also two backup singers who appear for portions of selected shows to make a full Hemphill 7.)

For all their passion about reggae, the Hemphill 7 have a degree of focus and a work ethic that might seem at odds with reggae’s laid-back “soon come” philosophy — to the point of having meetings to discuss band goals. “It’s important for us to have goals because otherwise, we get scattered,” Vano explained to me later. The Hemphill 7 came together in October 2001 from elements of the bands Route 420, Brasco, and Bindle. To be able to play bar gigs, the members immediately set about learning 40 songs — not only roots reggae classics by the likes of Marley, Tosh, Steel Pulse, and Sly and Robbie, but also, seemingly, every pop and rock tune with a reggae flavor, including songs by Elvis Costello, the Clash, Sublime, and even Led Zeppelin.

In February 2002, they opened a Ridglea Theater show for Marley’s former backing band, the Wailers. A demo e.p., recorded at that gig, shows the Hemphill 7 displaying remarkable assurance after only three months as a band. Since then, they’ve gigged relentlessly, sharing their conscious party vibe with crowds at venues from 8.0 and the Flying Saucer to the Black Dog, the Aardvark, and the Wreck Room. The hard work has paid off. With the money they’ve saved, the band is about to buy a trailer, “so we can do some touring,” said Vano. The next step is to take some time off from performing to write more original songs and prepare to record a full-length c.d. “We have six originals and four or five more in progress,” he said. “When we have 12 good originals, we’ll be ready to record.”

The band has no plans to shop for a label. “Today,” said Vano, “artists don’t have to rely on labels. We recorded our e.p. for incredibly cheap, and we have c.d. burners.” He also spoke of wanting to do a benefit for the homeless and hungry in Fort Worth — “and we have lots of them. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,’ and I think the same could be said of musicians and other creative people.”

Vano grew up in Harlingen, one of five children born to lower-middle-class strongly Christian ex-hippies. “They had been involved in the drug culture, and they were determined to insulate me from it,” said Vano, “so they wouldn’t let me listen to rock ’n’ roll, except for the Beatles and Bob Dylan.” Dylan in particular proved to be an inspiration, and as a youth, Vano started writing poetry, an avocation he continued when he moved to Fort Worth to attend college. “I used to run the poetry nights at the Dogstar on Berry Street when it was open. I found out that when you read poetry, nobody listens. Now I have people coming up to me to talk about our lyrics. That’s the power of music.”

The singer’s first exposure to reggae came through a friend who’d gotten a copy of Marley’s Legend compilation and hated it. “I didn’t like it either at first,” Vano recalled. “Then it hit me: Here’s this happy-sounding music where they’re singing about these horrible social conditions.” His first live reggae experience — a performance by Dallasite Leroy Shakespeare — was the epiphany that locked in Vano as a reggae fan. “There’s a story on our website [www.hemphill7.com] that people think is about our band but is actually about Leroy,” said Vano. “‘The red-eyed singer singing a song about his sunshine gal’ — that was Leroy.”

After that, he continued, “Like that Sublime song says, ‘I had to be there.’ I’m unbelievably lucky to be in a band with great musicians where I can play music that people can dance and sing to, that can make you forget you’re sad. I really believe there’s a healing power to reggae. Part of the lesson of Bob Marley’s life is that you can make revolutionary, unifying, healing music on your own terms.”

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