Sonic Canvas: Higher Education at the Melody Inn

Building from a Reggae Base, Higher Education Gives an Energetic and Powerful Performance at The Melody Inn.

If there’s one word to describe a meeting with Petey¬†(otherwise known as Peter Devaney), it’s intense. That’s the impression that’s bound to stick with you as you talk to the man. His gaze never quite leaves yours, he never seems to blink as he talks a mile a minute. Hell, even his laughter is intense.

“I’m always pushing the envelope” he says. “If you’re not pushing the envelope you’re basically dead as an artist.” It’s a quote he attributes to Bowie (David, not Jim). Pushing the envelope certainly describes both Peety and Higher Education. While they may not be redefining popular music in the same way that Captain Beefheart or Patti Smith did, they still have a hell of an innovative streak. At the very least, they have an approach to reggae that hasn’t been tried since Bad Brains. More importantly it’s an approach they take without ever trying to be Bad Brains. Imitation is the sincerest from of flattery after all, but it’s also a dead end.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, I’d imagine that most of you are here to read about the show, right?

Well too bad, I’m giving you a brief history lesson first weather you like it or not.

A Brief History

According to Petey, Higher Education really began when he took in a Wailers concert. With some, ahem, chemical enhancement, Petey had a vison of reggae music acting as a sort of canvas. A canvas to which he could apply other genres as though they were paint. Armed with that vision, he and the other members of Higher Education set out to make that dream a reality.

Ok, history lesson over.

So, without further ado…

The Show

You remember what I said about intensity in the opening paragraph, right? Well, that certainly carries over into Higher Education’s performance style as well. It isn’t just they way they play either, many of the genres that they merge with reggae tend to be of the harder-edged variety, such as punk or hard rock. The result is a very powerful, very driving sound that is pretty much impossible to ignore. Even when they’re not playing literally 15 feet away from you.

And don’t think for a moment that they disregard technique in favor of intensity. While their adoption of certain punk motifs might lead you to think otherwise, they have more than a few fancy tricks up their sleeves. Intricate solos, including one highly technical drum solo that bordered on jazz, alternating rhythms, these guys are busy onstage.

Speaking of busy, they also frequently feature multiple genres in the same song. In fact, one musical trick they often employed was to smoothly transition from reggae to the genre-de-jour, giving their songs a unique texture. If nothing else, it kept their songs from becoming too predictable. However, many other songs just took elements from reggae and other genres and merged them seamlessly into each measure. That way, nobody could accuse them of using the same trick one time to many. Which is good, since it is their avowed determination to avoid doing just that.

A Family Affair

When I asked Petey to tell me what differentiated his band from others like it, such as the Police, he had only one word for me: family. The band’s history certainly bears him out in his assertion. After all, not only is Petey’s brother in the band with him, but his father played a large part in creating Higher Education’s sound as well. Apparently the elder Devaney emphasized power as a way of creating a memorable presence on stage. As anybody at the Melody Inn on the night of the 22nd can attest, it worked. However, the theme of family seems to go even deeper than a father giving his input on his son’ project.

As we talk, Petey tells me proudly of his ancestor Alexander Henry, a Scottish immigrant who dared speak out against slavery in the antebellum south. Though he never outright says it, it’s clear that being a bit of a renegade runs in the family. This, of course, extends to Higher Education’s somewhat iconoclastic sound.

Final Thoughts

Did I like Higher Education? That’s the million dollar question, is it not? And the answer to that question is yes. Any quibbles I have with their sound or technique are trivial enough that I won’t even bother mentioning them. They have successfully used reggae as a base to build a broader, more innovative sound and have been very entertaining while doing so. And that is enough to endear them to me.

Keep listening, everybody.



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