Lord King brought dub to the Grey Eagle

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If you’ve ever heard the influence of groovy, medium-tempo dub reggae on Floating Action’s minimalist songwriter rock, then you’re not alone. The man behind Floating Action, Black Mountain’s own Seth Kauffman, has begun to combine the sounds and textures of live reggae, ska, and dub into performances of his Floating Action material. The result is Lord King, a band seemingly intent on turning the art of lo-fi recording into a live experience.

Composed of Kauffman on guitar and vocals and Evan Martin on keys and pitch-perfect synth bass, the duo took the already stripped-down sound of Floating Action and refined it even further, breaking song melodies down to their barest essentials and synthesizing a rich core of 1960s-era reggae. Hearing the transformation of Kauffman’s songs on stage made the connection seem obvious. But it was a musical sleight-of-hand: the subtle arrangement and excellent performance belied the intricate detail that had gone into the mash-up.

Image from the band's Facebook page
Image from the band’s Facebook page

A casual listener at last Friday’s Kool Keith concert at The Grey Eagle may have heard Lord King’s opening set as a throwback, drum-machine reggae project. But, like much of Kauffman’s music, it was the subtle stuff that brought the music to life. Kauffman approaches the electric guitar with a utilitarian sensitivity that separates him from 99-percent of six-string wailers. Whether slowly churning one-note runs on the bass strings or filling out a break with a lush melody line, the guitar was always understated, adding to the music in only the most necessary ways. Martin’s bass lines, synth-organ melodies, and off-beat reggae rhythms worked the same way. On its own, each instrument may have come off as simplistic, but woven together into Kauffman’s tightly-crafted pop songs, Lord King presented a serene, feel-good performance that both spun Floating Action on its head and celebrated the heyday of Jamaican dub. It only seemed like an obvious match because the musicians presented their material with such authority.

Within just a few numbers, it was clear that sparse reggae arrangements perfectly accentuate one of Floating Action’s best qualities: the slow-mo epic. Whether its Kauffman’s approach to songwriting, or just the way he prefers to organize and present his music, his songs always seem like they’re building to a peak, even though they rarely get louder, faster, or more aggressive. They merely suggest rising energy, rather than the obvious, building explosions that characterize so much rock music. Their mid-tempos never waver; the vocals and instruments never scream. Yet, there’s a striking pop sensibility to Kauffman’s melodies and a terrific use of form and repetition that make his songs both memorable and deceptive.

Kauffman’s songs always create a vibe, one that changes and develops over the course of the 4-minute pop song template. But they change at a gradual, nearly earth-cooling pace, and they develop in controlled and nuanced directions. In this way, they’re perfect vehicles for reggae experimentation. The swirling delays of the famous Echo-plex tape echo my have helped girded the texture of the performance, but it was the intricately-constructed pop songs that skanked slowly forward toward their lo-fi zenith.

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