A high harmonica subtone, wheezed out by Taj Mahal, signals the start of "Keep My Faith," the lead-off track from Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers' July-released "Spirit of Music" album. Wah-wah guitar shows up next, followed by a shaker, tumbling Nyabinghi drums and, finally, the leader's earnest declarations, seconded by tasty background vocals, about staying to the straight and narrow of his chosen path of righteousness. The message, a devotion to the same musical and spiritual concerns as the family band's late father, reggae master Bob Marley, remains as it was 15 years ago or so, when Ziggy, Stephen, Cedella and Sharon first toured and recorded together.
But the music is largely acoustic-based, a sharp left turn from the heavily textured pop productions of such discs as 1997's "Fallen Is Babylon." "It just feels better, I don't know why," Ziggy Marley, 30, says from a tour stop in Los Angeles. That no-frills sound is a surprise, too, in light of the disc's producer: Don Was -- who's worked his magic on Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones and the B-52's, among others -- heard Marley play new songs on acoustic guitar during a meeting in Miami.
"He liked how that felt," Marley recounts. "We were introduced, and we just had a good vibe together. ... I didn't like some of the stuff he'd done before, but I wasn't judging him on stuff he did."
"Spirit of Music" also saw the siblings dropping their longtime reggae studio pals in favor of roots-rocking players, including drummer Jim Keltner (Little Village, Roy Orbison, John Lennon), bassist Hutch Hutchinson (Raitt) and Heartbreakers organist Benmont Tench. It's a refreshing combination, with the ensemble turning up the jingle-jangle for the '60s-ish "Beautiful Day," going blue and moody on "Gone Away," putting a jazzy spin on "13 Months of Sunshine" (with trumpeter Mark Isham) and grooving hard on the hip-hop backbeat of "Won't Let You Down."
The disc offers another plus, with the impressive lead vocal work of Stephen, known as the Dancehall DJ of the group. He bears a striking sonic resemblance to his father, with throaty, sinewy vocals just shy of cracking open with emotion, on a pair of tunes penned by his dad, the slow-grinding "All Day All Night" and the ambling "High Tide or Low Tide." His sisters and Erica Newell, piping in with lovely vocals, might be thought of as the I-Threes, reborn.
In concert, the effect is deeply infectious, with the lead vocals of Ziggy and Stephen engaging in conversational interplay with the trio of female backup singers, and an always sturdy backup band pumping out deep reggae grooves and the occasional hip-hop rhythm. The group pulls out favorites from big albums of a decade ago -- "Conscious Party" and "One Bright Day" -- and often takes on a Bob Marley classic or two.
It all makes for a choice nostalgia buzz, one certain to appeal to those who were tuned into the reggae revolution, as well as younger listeners hoping to catch up on what they missed. On the other hand, don't those kinds of sonic choices and programming decisions make life more difficult for a group of artists forced to deal with the advantages and/or pressures of having a famous last name?
"It's not on my mind," the band's leader says. "You don't think about what your name is or what you think people think about that, or what the pressures are or whatever. I just play music. I think about what it feels like and what it sounds like. I know when something touches your soul, you can't deny it. That's the spirit of the music. That's where it goes. It doesn't go to your ears, it just goes to your spirit."