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Steel Pulse (Saturday, February 19th, 2005, Fine Line Music Café, Minneapolis)
David Hinds and Selwyn Brown of Steel Pulse - Photo c. Tony Mottram 2003

By Helen Blodgett

Snow fell and quickly melted on the sidewalks as people entered the Fine Line to experience Steel Pulse Saturday night. Any live music enthusiasts who may have been wandering by to see if it was going to be their type of show quickly found out that the air was going to be filled with reggae as they neared the door and the hot guitar scratching came flickering out into the cold.

Ipso Facto opened the show playing some rock-induced reggae, giving many reasons for the crowd to start enjoying themselves. Ipso Facto was formed by brothers Wain, Juju, and Greg McFarlane, who grew up in Worthington, MN (my uncle’s hometown!). Starting the band in 1983, they became popular in the Twin Cities and toured extensively in the 80s and 90s, teaming up with UB40 and Tracy Chapman at times, among others. (See http://www.citypages.com/databank/19/936/article6485.asp for more.) The siblings developed different projects later, including Zydeco Blue and Ethical Treatment. Along the way, various other musicians have joined the musical family for performances.

Steel Pulse formed out of Handsworth Boys School in Birmingham, England. They toured with punk bands early on and since have established themselves as a solid reggae band, always committed to singing conscious messages. David Hinds (writer, lead vocals, rhythm guitar and percussion) and Selwyn Brown (keyboards and vocals) are founding members, and Sydney Mills (keyboards), Alvin Ewin (bass), Clifford "Moonie" Pusey (lead guitar) and Conrad Kelly (drums and percussion) have been members for years. Sylvia Tella and Donna Sterling have recently joined the band as backing singers and dancers, in a style derived from the I-Threes. I appreciated their female presence and energy on the stage and they shared their strong voices in a couple solos. In addition, they inspired me to try out a few new dance moves to mix in with the steady swaying and hip shaking.

Hinds, with his large sleek sunglasses and robust dreads, seemed to communicate well with Selwyn Brown, you can tell they’ve been playing together a long time.

The songs poured on, the crowd shook harder, people who met that night were trying to figure out if they’d meet again, a woman up front waved a record cover for the 1982 album “True Democracy.” Then the band hit a climactic point and Hinds spread his arms into one of his signature freezes, like standing backwards, triumphantly on top of a speeding train with leaves rushing by…and he unfroze and brought it back down.

Steel Pulse has been asking us to know our history for 30 years. It was highly appropriate and rejuvenating then, that toward the end of the set, the band broke it down while Hinds honored the people involved in a convergence of anniversaries this year.

It is 75 years since the birth of Rastafarianism,
65 years since Marcus Garvey died,
60 years since the birth of Bob Marley,
50 years since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat,
and this past Monday, the 21st, marks 40 years since Malcolm X was assassinated.

This history is present throughout their newest album, “African Holocaust.” In it, there are calls to unite: unite politically in “Make Us a Nation,” unite in African roots in “Darker than Blue,”and unite with all beings in “Global Warning.” Saturday night, one of the songs that lyrically struck me was “Uncle George.” It’s the story of the revolutionary inmate George Jackson who studied and learned too much about the system, and helped form the Black Guerilla Family, which worked to redirect criminal activity into political activism. The threat of prisoners uniting led to him being framed as killing a prison guard, and consequently killed in what guards claimed was an attempt to escape. On the album, Steel Pulse also cover Bob Dylan’s “George Jackson” with the verse:

Sometimes I think the whole wide world
Is one big prison yard
Where some of us are prisoners and
Some of us are guards.

During all the dancing and encouragement to stand up for our rights, the snow had continued to gather higher on the ground. And people walked out into the cold discovering that tow trucks had taken whole blocks of cars to the impound lot. While you imagine people cursing in the background let me make it clear that I don’t mean for too many parallels to be drawn between towing cars and prison guards. But it was a shame to see that we can’t come up with an affordable parking system in downtown Minneapolis that supports enjoying each other and beautiful music.

Keep your pulse real, keep your pulse steel…

Helen Blodgett is h.blodgett[at]gmail.com