Between them, reggae acts I-Tal and First Light have decades of musical experience. Even as reggae's popularity has ebbed in other parts of the nation, the local groups have kept those fires burning in Northeast Ohio. But despite the fact that each band's musical lineage goes back at least 30 years, the two acts have never shared the same stage. Until now. This weekend at House of Blues, they're finally playing together, and we conducted separate interviews with I-Tal front man Dave Smeltz and First Light bandleader Carlos Jones to get some perspective on the show.
Talk about the band's formation and describe what the reggae scene was like in the early days.
Smeltz: We formed in mid 1978, though a couple of members say we started in 1977. I don't remember much of 1977. The reggae scene was, not a lot of reggae around. There was one Jamaican reggae band, I think Black Lion was the name, and Jah Messenger soon came after that. Terraplane played a couple of reggae songs, but you couldn't really call them a reggae band. We were the first to start playing reggae the majority of the night. We started at the [old University Circle club] the Coach House, and owner Dave Valentine had a jukebox of reggae 45s. We used to pack the Coach House. I don't know how pure the reggae was that we were playing. We were playing reggae with a lot of rock influence. Being from Cleveland, that's what you gotta do.
Jones: When First Light formed, that was early 1984, about January or February. Most of us were members of First Light. Reggae was booming all over the world, and the United States was no exception. Cleveland was riding that wave and I-Tal led the way. There was lots of excitement, and it was really fresh. People were getting turned on to reggae music, and on a local scale, it was through I-Tal that that was happening.
Was there a rivalry between the two groups?
Smeltz: I don't think there was a rivalry. We were in different directions. A lot of the guys in First Light just wanted to go in different directions. They wanted to play a certain style and type, and they had some originals they wanted to do, too. I had a different approach. We just went our separate ways. We started going out of town to the Southeast, and First Light played a lot in Cleveland. When we came back to town, we were a band from out of town. They were the hometown favorites. Everything has a cycle. We were the hometown favorite, and then they were. The bottom line is that we all play music that touches people.
Jones: When the split came, it was the classic creative differences kind of thing, and there were interpersonal issues and ego clashes and stuff like that. We needed a fresh, creative direction. I got thrown up front as the lead man and never looked back. This show will be the first time since 1983 that we've been together. There was no outspoken rivalry. It was just the fact that we went our own directions. Dave kept I-Tal going, and he was doing his own thing. Over the years, all the hard feelings and animosities kind of fade, and things have run their natural course. At this point, we feel so blessed we're all still around and things have come full circle, so we can celebrate our connection.
Why has reggae been so popular in Northeast Ohio?
Smeltz: I think Northeast Ohio is a breeding ground for a bunch of different music. We're all open to different tastes. It's a melting pot of Polish and Slovenia. I should start playing reggae polka. You have folks in Kent and the college towns, and Cleveland is more open-minded, and the music lends itself to a positive lifestyle anyway if we talk about getting everybody together and forgetting about trivialities. Folks relate to it. A lot of college towns across the United States are more open to reggae. It's a drag to stay stuck in one spot; that would be a boring world. The more you're open, the more you can experience.
Jones: It's always had a loyal core of followers and people who know what that vibration is all about. It goes beyond the cultural and spiritual connotations of a Jamaican society and becomes a universal vibration that people can feel. That's what I've chosen to focus on with my P.L.U.S. band. There's no need for any kind of separation. When people get together and feel this music, none of that matters. It's a unity thing. Cleveland has always been such a huge music town. The arts flourish and thrive here, even though we may not be recognized by the coasts as one of the trendy places. There's so much talent here. Of course, the rock 'n' roll legacy. There are so many people here who appreciate music as a whole.
With which big stars have you shared the stage?
Smeltz: We opened for Peter Tosh three or four times. Third World, Steel Pulse, Toots, and when we went to Jamaica with a different formation, we opened up for people like Sugar Minot and the Mighty Diamonds. That's one thing about when we started out, I think we might have drawn some attention to reggae. [Local promoters] started booking reggae bands after we formed, and being one of the major reggae bands at the time, we were able to open to major acts. Folks like Pere Ubu were around and opening for lots of people, but they couldn't play reggae. We played at the old Agora and were opening up for Third World, and I had picked the name I-Tal out of a Penthouse magazine, some educational reading. There was a thing about reggae terms and terminology and patois. I saw the word "ital," and it means natural or vital. I thought that sounded good. We were opening for Third World and Toots and we were doing a sound check, and the Rasta way of living is no salt and no pork and no meat. We were opening for those cats, and I'm starving, and the guys are walking around and I got a hot dog, and they go, "Ital." I go, "I'm from Cleveland. I'm hungry." Shortly after that, I stopped eating meat. But they had a point. They call it "Jafakin'."
Jones: Go down the list. Jimmy Cliff and Burning Spear and Culture and Peter Tosh. Mighty Diamonds, Black Uhuru, the Meditations, and even the Skatalites. For a group of American guys, we've gotten it rather honestly. When we opened for the Neville Brothers at the Palace Theatre, they were a real cool, down-to-earth bunch of guys, and we got to hang out with them a bit before the show. We did our set, and we were doing a reggae version of "Come Together" by the Beatles, and they had their own version of the same song in their set. It was really cool, because both versions were different but were equally powerful.
Do you have anything special planned for this show?
Smeltz: We have a couple of songs that we've been working on that haven't been played out before. I have a version of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U." We play music more by feeling, and I love arranging songs that you wouldn't think would be reggae songs. We're playing a song written by our first drummer, who wrote "Song of Jamaica." We probably haven't played that in over 30 years.
Jones: I think it's all special. I'm the kind of guy who likes the spontaneity aspect, and we're planning out a set and paying our more popular tunes that people remember us for. I'm playing with both bands, and we'll have a "mix it up" moment where everybody is out there all together for some controlled chaos. I expect there will be some kind of jam at the end. We want to show people the whole lineage. We're all really excited. This is a moment in Cleveland music history.