Devin Morrison was in high school in the late ’90s when he and other members of The Expanders started digging on the pre-Bob Marley classic music of Jamaica. They started as die-hard fans of old-school ska and reggae, while trying to break into the larger and more modern ska scene in Los Angeles. But what started as an interest in stacked sounds from their personal record collections quickly grew into a musician’s wet dream, with Morrison and his bandmates gigging as the house band for touring Jamaican musicians, the pioneers of reggae.
The Expanders backed artists like Alton Ellis and Leonard Dillon, and that became the foundation of the band. Call them American ambassadors or history teachers of the genre, enlightening those interested to its obscure, important creators. It’s a simple idea that has become a mission statement for the band – turn modern audiences onto the past via the music they make in the present.
The Expanders will perform tonight, Thursday, April 12, at The Animas City Theatre, along with Sensamotion and Dubbest.
“We ended up backing a lot of our Jamaican heroes at that time,” said Morrison. “They loved the fact these American kids were into the music that they had made 30 or 40 years ago. We would bring singles for them to sign, records they hadn’t seen since the day it came out, so it was always a great experience.”
It’s exactly what Chuck Berry used to do: tour solo, and in each town put a backing band together.
“It has been five or six years since we started touring in this American reggae scene, where most of the bands are a rock/reggae hybrid that listen to Jamaican music, but are just as heavily, or maybe more so, influenced by bands like Sublime,” said Morrison. “We didn’t start out and say, ‘We’re going to make ourselves stand out by playing this kind of music.’ That’s just what we grew up listening to, and that was always going to come out since we picked up instruments. But, as soon as we started touring, we thought it might be a smart move to define that as our niche. That’s what we want to do. We want to expose this old music to an audience that might not have heard much of it, or might have heard Bob Marley or Peter Tosh, but don’t know about the giant iceberg below the surface of Jamaican music.”
As a band, the music they make is minimal and laid back, full of the classic rhythm that defines reggae, no matter the era. Its simplicity is what makes it so great. It pulls no punches and offers no tricks, a genuine and honest offering.
It’s also an exploration and nod to what reggae music has given to the rest of the world. It’s a building block as one style after another has branched out from old school reggae, and the band offers that recognition via a number of singles and full-length albums, including their latest single, “Blood Morning.”
“I was fascinated by the disproportionate influence Jamaican music had on the rest of the world in terms of the size of the island, and the music was only made in a small neighborhood on this tiny island, and it went out to the whole world. Everyone knows reggae,” said Morrison. “There would be no hip-hop, or it would be a very different thing if there wasn’t reggae. There would be no electronic music if there wasn’t dub, so it went on to shape the music of the world. As a music lover when you see a phenomenon like that you have to stop and take note.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. [email protected]