Michael Goldwasser, the producer behind the Easy Star All-Stars, has helped bring classic, ’70s-style roots reggae back to a level of popularity alongside another band he produced, Rebelution. Part of that was his returning to the source, using old analog instruments and machines and immersing himself for years in the sounds of King Tubby, Augustus Pablo and the other legends of reggae. The main reason was his one big idea: reggae covers of classic rock albums. Starting in 2003, with their cover of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” – retitled “Dub Side of the Moon” – Easy Star All-Stars have taken on Radiohead’s “OK Computer,” The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” The All-Stars are an offshoot of Easy Star Records house band, and a constant revolving lineup of musicians, one incarnation of which will be playing Live Oak Fest.
Regular visitors to Santa Barbara, this year’s gig is a greatest hits of sorts, playing songs from all four albums. Mr. Goldwasser occasionally joins them on tour, but now with the record label busier than ever before, he’s staying in New York.
“Dub Side of the Moon”‘s origin story – many versions exist that are all wrong, which makes Mr. Goldwasser laugh – starts with his business partner listening to the Pink Floyd album on his Walkman and suddenly getting the idea of making reggae versions. “Personally, I wasn’t even an aficionado of the original album,” Mr. Goldwasser says. “I don’t know if I had ever sat down and really listened to it. I know that’s un-American!”
So Mr. Goldwasser made a few demos and realized it would work, even though Pink Floyd’s often tricky time signatures are the antithesis of reggae’s simple four-four beat. Still, it’s druggy, psychedelic rock was a perfect fit for the otherworldly, echoey sounds of roots reggae.
The rest is a successful history of live touring and what might have been seen as a one-off novelty soon grew fans. The project also allowed Mr. Goldwasser to call in some of his heroes from the ’70s to lend guest vocals to the tracks, including Horace Andy, Sugar Minott, Toots & the Maytals, Frankie Paul, Ranking Roger, Steel Pulse, U-Roy and more.
“Ninety-five percent of the Jamaican artists we work with do not know the originals,” Mr. Goldwasser says. “I think it’s a good thing. They bring their own vibes to it. It’s cooler when they don’t know and something more happens than I would expect.”
Toots and the Maytals’ version of Radiohead’s “Let Down” brings a beautiful melancholy to the song, so much that Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood have praised it. “He owned that song in his own way,” says Mr. Goldwasser. “Nobody else could have sang it that way.”
There are plans for a fifth record in the Easy Star covers series, but “I can’t say even when it’ll be released because we haven’t decided on the album yet. We want to surprise people, we don’t want it to be obvious. We have about five contenders right now but that could change next week.”
In the meantime, Easy Star Records is busy producing and releasing other works. “Roots reggae is just what sounds good to me,” says Mr. Goldwasser. “I’m certainly not the only person who loves that era of music, but to me it’s about making good music from the heart and hopefully people will appreciate that.”
Easy Star All-Stars
When: 9 p.m. tonight
Where: Live Oak Festival, San Marcos Pass
Cost: $55-$130 (one-day festival pass-full festival pass)
Information: (805) 781-3030, www.liveoakfest.org