Friday, December 30, 2011

Steel Pulse - Chapter 11

It's early, but here's Chapter 11 of the incredible Steel Pulse story. For a long while I had planned to author a biography of the world's best reggae band, Steel Pulse. It never happened but rather than let my notes gather dust, I am publishing each chapter on my blog, on a weekly basis, to give everyone an insight into this incredible music group. Here's the 11th of thirteen chapters.

STEEL PULSE - A Lifetime of Revolution

Chapter 11: Leaving A Legacy

In August 1999, Steel Pulse were back on the road with Donna and Sylvia providing the backing vocals as the band returned to join a second Spirit of Unity Tour. Donna recalls, "David had said he wouldn't do another one because of the problems we'd had. All of a sudden another one came up and an opportunity to recoup some of the money we'd lost on the first one. We did it. On the second tour was Maxi Priest again, Third World, us and Monifah, a really good soul singer. We headlined again most nights, it was then that I really understood how big Steel Pulse were." The group headlined the world TEVA Spirit of Unity tour alongside Third World, Maxi Priest and Culture, visiting no less than 44 cities. To promote the event, they teamed up with Maxi Priest, Ras Shiloh, Joseph Hill and Third World to perform a medley of Bob Marley hits on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. After completing coast to coast gigs in the States, the tour took in Barbados before moving across to Europe for a few concerts.

Pulse joined up with cable tv network BET in America for a series of tv commercials and on 17 August released a second live album, Living Legacy, for the WMD and Tuff Gong labels. The album, recorded at live concerts in France, Holland and Puerto Rico over a three year period, is a collection of their work over the last twenty years and was again nominated for a Grammy, their seventh such nomination. As Hinds expounds, "we deal with positive forces. It means putting aside the guns, the drugs and all of the things that are ailments of society. We're not here to start a physical revolution, we're just here to open everybody's eyes and let them check for themselves." When asked about the band's longevity, Hinds responded, "The secret is not so much the band, it's the concept. It doesn't matter who's in the band; in fact, there's been so many changes from day one til now, what's kept us together is the concept. There's three general backbones to the band - myself, Selwyn Brown and Steve Nisbett. As of late we've been introducing ourselves to a new audience, new as in going to new places, like in Africa. It has given the band a new lease of life, to be honest with you. We've been knocking around in the Western world through all that bureaucracy in the music business. Performing in Africa was more like a relaxing period for us. There was no industry to convince what we were about. It was just the hardcore fans living, eating, drinking, sleeping the music of Steel Pulse." Hinds was forthright in his views on reggae music. "We love Bob Marley, don't get me wrong. I'd say we love him more than most people do, because we toured with him, we spoke with him on his death bed. We lived his music, everything else, but reggae music doesn't stop at Bob Marley. The actual reality of it is, Marley was fortunate to get his foot in the door and there's been no stopping him or his family ever since. It's a shame no one else has looked at other acts in that light, as if Marley was the only one capable of writing lyrics. There's so many good lyric writers that have come through the reggae domain - Dennis Brown in his own kind of way, Jimmy Cliff with Vietnam and Harder They Come. There's other artists that aren't commercially viable, some of the old-timers, not to mention Burning Spear, who played a big part in moulding and inspiring Steel Pulse."

Much of 2000 saw the band touring extensively in the USA with stops in Anchorage, Alaska and two dates in Hawaii during a gruelling 40 date tour in 46 days. They also appeared at the Reggae Sumfest in Montego Bay, Jamaica for the first time in three years. This included a first-ever visit by Donna to Jamaica, the home of her parents. "We went to play the Reggae Sumfest in Montego Bay, my first time in Jamaica, with Morgan Heritage and Joe, an RnB singer. It was a two day festival in August. I'd heard all about Jamaica from my family, though I didn't get to see much of it on that trip. I remember that by the time we got on stage, it was nearly 4 o'clock in the morning, we were due on stage about six hours earlier. I know it was then because after we came off and changed, it was light and morning had arrived. The whole atmosphere was just terrific." They also joined the Bob Marley celebrations in Washington DC, at Reggae Sundance in Holland and a flying visit to La Reunion in the Pacific Ocean - touring and live shows remaining an integral part of Steel Pulse's repertoire. 2000 also saw the departure of Sylvia Tella to pursue her own solo career. "Sylvia had finished her own album (Tella Like It Is). We went to Dominica, then at the next rehearsal there was no Sylvia and Sidney told us that she'd gone to do her own stuff and that was that. I panicked even worse then. I realised I was on my own. Sylvia was the main vocalist out of me and her... I followed in her footsteps and at certain parts of the set, David would have her sing, like Blessed Is The Man, as the main vocalist. She hit some high notes that I could never reach, she hit them every night or at least she tried. When she left, David asked me to do it. I was like, 'no way, I can't do it' but he said 'Donna, be yourself, do your own thing.' The doubts returned. It was hard for me. I couldn't do it her way so I did it in my own RnB way, where it related to the youth of today, my age group and younger." It was Selwyn who gave Donna much needed support at that time and who'd taken on the role of mentor and her coach. "It gave me the opportunity to work more closely with Selwyn, who worked really hard with me. He gave up his free time and we did a lot of practicing, rehearsing and moulding that specific song to me, so that it suited me, made me unique in my own RnB way."

"David was going to bring in another female vocalist to replace Sylvia. I think his intention was to have three female singers. There was a girl called Monique, we clicked straight away, who joined us for a gig in Barcelona and a couple more in France. She was from Handsworth and had been with the group Black Voices. She also did a memorial with us in Birmingham at the Irish Center in Digbeth. We did three songs, Black & Proud, Black Enough? and Islands Unite. That was a nervous night for me, I was on home territory, people knew me and I was very nervous. A few local artists played. It was my one and only British gig with Steel Pulse." That was at the beginning of 2001 and they were in France and Spain, in June they appeared in Switzerland (Caribana festival), Belgium and France, and at the Montreal and Womad festivals in July. The Womad event in Seattle saw 40 artists from 22 countries take part including Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant and the Neville Brothers. Grizzly Nisbett's final concert with Steel Pulse took place in San Diego in August 2001. He picks up the story, "towards the end of that year I started feeling chest pains on tour, but didn't feel them at home. I went to see a Doctor as they were bothering me. I had tests and he said is was Angina, too much pressure causing the heart to swell and I was told not to tour. I wasn't allowed to tour until they found out exactly what it was, and its been like that since. I was expecting him just to say have a rest, I didn't expect him to say stop touring full stop. The way we tour was too dangerous, rest periods were nil so he wouldn't allow me to tour. That was it. When I got home I cried. I enjoy being on the road, its a hell of a shock not touring. Even now I'm still eager to go back out there, but I'm more chilled now and involved in this whole record business and production and I find I'm enjoying that just as much. The only thing I'm really missing are the friends and contacts I've made out there. I don't miss all the crap that goes with touring, believe me I don't miss that. Stuck in an airport for a couple of days, sweating my balls off, I don't miss that. Its all part of the adventure and the fun. I'm still getting pains if I exert myself and I've got a test coming up soon, then I'll know if I'll need surgery or not."

Grizzly had been on the road, with Steel Pulse and other bands, for thirty-five years and its a career that he's very proud of. "Steel Pulse are very popular around the world. What the band is about, people don't see us as a band in it for the glory, we're a band that believes in what we're doing, believes in what we're saying and the fan knows it, feels it and believes it too. Whether in Paris or New York and points in between, everyone knows and loves Steel Pulse. Its a fact." He pays tribute to the fans of Steel Pulse. "Our fans throughout the world are great. Everybody we've met is like that. Nice people, who want us back and we want to go back. Lots of good, genuine friends, met lots of people, Kings and Presidents you never thought you'd meet. From the richest to the poorest and everybody in between. You learn about life. I would advise anybody to travel, you learn a lot more by travelling, about who you are and what's out there." A visit to Lima in Peru for a reggae festival, "it was freezing cold and I'd taken all my Summer clothes to wear!" brought an end to the first half of their coast to coast Stateside tour, as Donna recalls. "We'd landed back in Britain the day before September 11th after flying out of Newark airport," with the band immediately cancelling the second half of their tour as a mark of respect for the victims of the New York and Washington terrorist attacks. Concerts in Holland & France did take place but they cancelled scheduled visits to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Johannesburg (South Africa) as 2001 drew to a close.

Chapter 12: Brand New Dawn (Equality, Liberty & Justice) - will follow next week.

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