Local drummer Jeff Allgrove can hardly believe what’s happened in his life in the decade since his reggae band Pure Roots formed. Like, for instance, the time he sat at Ken Boothe’s house in Kingston, Jamaica eating the best mango he ever tasted, and munching on some really spicy red snapper.
Boothe’s name may not be as recognizable as Bob Marley’s, but to hardcore reggae fans, he is right up there with the legends. Boothe is often called “Mr. Rock Steady,” in reference to the soulful, slower-paced sub-genre between ska and reggae that dominated the Jamaican airwaves in the late ’60s. Allgrove not only broke bread with Boothe, he also got him to record vocals on a Pure Roots track that will be featured on the group’s debut album in late 2017.
“He was a really humble guy, and he welcomed me into his house very warmly,” Allgrove says. “I turned on some music I produced. He listened to the song four times in a row. By the fourth time, we started a conversation about recording some music together. It was really a blessing.”
The Pure Roots debut is a long time coming. Its influences span the gamut of Jamaican music from the ’60s and ’70s (ska, rocksteady, reggae rockers), as well as elements of American R&B. The group has been working on this album almost as long as it’s been a band. Recording sessions started in 2009, when the group lost its singer. For a while, the remaining members played live as an instrumental group, but they spent a majority of their time in the recording studio. The band recorded and re-recorded tracks a handful of times. The last time was in 2014, with Steel Pulse’s Amlak Tafari in the co-producer chair.
“We were looking for that real crisp sound. It took us a few years longer than we anticipated,” Allgrove says.
Vocal duties for the album have been filled by a variety of singers, including a who’s who of classic Jamaican music. In addition to Boothe, Junior Reid and Earl Zero (who is the group’s current live lead singer since 2011, and also a featured guest at their Moe’s Alley show on Friday) contributed to the record. There are more, Allgrove says, but he can’t announce them just yet.
How did a Santa Cruz reggae group get to work with so many legendary Jamaican artists? Well, before Allgrove brought any of them into the recording booth, he was booking them. In 2008, he founded Right Vibes Productions to get Pure Roots better gigs. In no time, he was booking other local acts, too. Then, in 2012, he connected with the Wailing Souls, a Jamaican band that dates back to 1967, and started representing them. From there, he forged connections with other international reggae acts like Horace Andy, Black Uhuru and Junior Reid.
“The Wailing Souls are an example of one of the more underappreciated reggae bands, an original harmony trio from Kingston Jamaica,” Allgrove says. “They’ve told me stories of them picking through the landfill with Bob Marley, looking for food, before they were ever playing music.”
Allgrove works hard for his clients. Last year, he took the Wailing Souls to Brazil, where they played five sold-out shows. Just a few months ago, he took them to Kenya—the first time in the band’s entire career they had performed in Africa. According to Allgrove, the band played to 6,000 people from 1:30 a.m. until 5:15 in the morning.
“Those guys are up there, so joyful, playing their music. They are genuinely happy and looking young and youthful. They had more energy than me. It’s crazy. I look up to those guys,” Allgrove says.
Getting to record and travel with these legendary Jamaican musicians has been an inspiration for Allgrove as he continues to finish up Pure Roots’ debut album, and play shows in and out of the Santa Cruz area for eager reggae fans.
“There’s a saying: ‘Who feels it knows it.’ That saying didn’t mean much to me the first time I heard it,” Allgrove says. “With all the professional musicians we’ve worked with, you’re standing there watching it—it’s pure energy. It’s really nice to know that there’s a spirit in reggae. Our message is in the music, and the music is in the message.”
Pure Roots plans to release four singles in 2017 prior to the release of its full-length album. The first, with vocalist Junior Reid, is expected to be out in April.
INFO: 9 p.m., Dec. 9, Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $7/adv, $10/door. 479-1854.