First of all, boys and girls, a little bit of complete disclosure: the original Wingless Angels album (released in 1997) has received its fair share of play around the cabin here over the years – it’s good Sunday morning music. What’s even better is having a visitor ask, “That’s a cool vibe – who is that?” because that sets you up to casually reply, “Oh, you know: just Keith Richards and some of his Rasta buds,” and watch their heads spin around like a barn owl.
I bring this up mainly because it feels like the secret is out now. Whereas the first Wingless Angels album just sort of eased out into the world – you either knew about it or you didn’t – Wingless Angels II is getting the kind of attention that music like this deserves.
Woah – hang that cynical attitude on the nail by the door, my friend. I heard you mutter, “Oh, yeah – Keith puts out a smoke-filled recording of him and a bunch of his Jamaican weed buddies partying and the world calls it ‘vital’ just ‘cause it’s got a Stone on it.”
You couldn’t be more wrong.
Doesn’t matter what your zip code is, the color of your skin, who you believe is (or isn’t) watching over us all, or how many years you’ve been on this planet this time around – this music will make your bones hum with its pureness if you let it. Core-of-the-earth drumbeats and ancient melodies that were first uttered way back when this ol’ earth looked a lot different are the key elements to the sound of the Wingless Angels.
Born from seed planted back in 1972 (the Stones had crash-landed in Jamaica at that point to mellow out after their post-_Exile_ US tour and begin work on Goats Head Soup), the friendship between Richards and the loose band of Rastafarian drummers and singers evolved because of his spirit and being. The Stones didn’t mean anything to them. When Keef was first invited to sit in on some of the Rastas’ musical sessions, it was as a guest listener, not a musical participant. And when he was eventually given the nod to join the circle, he did it with respect and appreciation – not as a rock star.
If there were such a thing as a head Angel, it would have been the late Justin Hinds. A ska pioneer in the early 60s, Hinds had bailed on the limelight of his country’s music scene by the time Keith was hanging out there, opting to lead a quiet existence in the small Jamaican village of Steer Town. A humble man who was a musical hero to Bob Marley himself, Hinds never received the attention he deserved during his lifetime – but the music he made with his friends reflected none of that. When you hear Hinds’ vocals on Wingless Angels II, you realize that in another time and place, the man could’ve been an Al Green or Otis Redding. Play “Oh What A Joy” just once – just once – and try to deny it.
Sadly, Justin Hinds passed away in 2005. Fellow Wingless Angels Locksley Whitlock and Vincent Ellis are gone as well. There will be no “Wingless Angels 2011 Worldwide Tour – Brought To You By Budweiser”, folks – but there wouldn’t have been even if all the parties involved were still with us. This music was what it was, when it was, and where it was.
Whereas the basic tracks on Wingless Angels I were more or less field recordings with the group’s sound captured on a couple of mics, the second volume actually finds them in a studio setting. It’s a tribute to producer Brian Jobson (who also plays bass on the album) that he was able to give the Angels’ sound the attention it deserved without taking away any of the vibe. If the original album was like sitting outside the circle and listening in, Wingless Angels II puts you in the center and lets it wash over you.
Besides Jobson, there are tasteful contributions and sweetenings from other guests who were totally in sync with the Angels’ vibe. On paper, it may be hard to imagine how the bluesy harmonica of Lee Jaffe fits into the group’s sound, but it does, roaming the hills in the background of “Shady Tree” and joining Lili Haydn’s violin in a swirling dance around the Angels on “So Sweet”. Vocals from Lisa Fischer, Bernard Fowler, and Steve Jordan blend perfectly with the Rastas’ voices, adding texture without detracting.
And then there’s ol’ Keef himself. Wingless Angels II offers some of his most passionate playing of late. Don’t be looking for extended solos – such things don’t exist in the Angels’ world – but instead savor the spiritual colorings Richards adds to the music. His guitar folds into the moment gracefully, adding everything from bits of Pops Staples-flavored licks, gentle strums, and big, bold suspended chords to sharp chunks of skanked rhythms and runs that scuttle back and forth between blues bends and happy little ska riffs.
Again, don’t mistake the studio setting of Wingless Angels II for a polished, slicked-up effort. The feeling is real; the love involved is obvious.
Keith Richards refers to this as “marrow music” – I can’t do any better.