For the last 20 years, bassist and vocalist Rob Melendez has been playing a kind of music that he has dubbed “California reggae.”
“It’s a synthesis of rock, pop and reggae,” he says. “I’ve never tried to imitate that Jamaican style.”
While acts like Sublime were known for playing a reggae rock number followed by a punk rock song, Melendez’s groups have sought to do something else entirely. He says a lot of his work over the years has been merging the rhythms of reggae to a typical pop rock song structure.
His latest songs performed by his newest band, the Militia of Love, reflect his mix of reggae and pop rock. “Deal Me In” features a tropical bounce, blasts of horns, and pattering percussion, but it also has a slick produced sound typical of pop music, and Melendez’s decidedly pop rock vocals. “Bust Out” sounds more like roots reggae, with catchy lyrics about making a change in one’s life, but the chorus is big enough to stick out in the minds of pop music audiences.
Though a Monterey County native, Melendez began his music career in San Diego with a band called the Cardiff Reefers. Formed while the bandmembers attended UCSD, the Cardiff Reefers played pop rock and reggae songs buoyed by the splashy piano playing of Chris Ballard and the clean, Joe Satriani-like shredding of guitarist Matt Hale. Some of the band’s originals, including “Way It Must Be,” only had a slight reggae-ish pulse, while “Punch the Clock” was reggae with big ‘80s style rock guitar.
For nine years, the Reefers played to enthusiastic Southern California crowds—including an opening slot for legendary reggae act Steel Pulse—and toured all over the West. By the end, the band was doing 200-plus shows a year, which contributed to their demise. “We were victims of road burnout,” he says. “We reached a plateau, and we couldn’t get to the next level.”
In 1991, Melendez moved back to Monterey and decided to pursue a career as an electrician. “I was disillusioned,” he says. “I was over it. It seemed like a lot of work for a little return.”
But, after five years, he was back playing another blend of reggae and rock in San Luis Obispo’s Rock Steady Posse. Since then, he has played with a slew of local outfits, from the Salinas funk rock band High Street to the last incarnation of Randy Baldwin’s popular local rock act Trial By Fire, to lively cover band Super Duper.
A year ago, Melendez formed the Militia of Love with a group of seasoned players he met working with regional and local acts. The lineup includes guitarist Greg Ichikawa (Rock Steady Posse), drummer Efrain Cantu (High Street), keyboard player Pete Todd (Cardiff Reefers), trumpeter Bill Steacy (Jonah and the Whalewatchers) and Melendez on bass and vocals. “We’re a local band with a lot of experience,” he says.
Melendez believes his latest band is probably the closest thing he has ever done to straightforward reggae.
“I would say it’s a more grounded version of all my past projects,” he says. “I’d almost say it’s more rootsy.”
The Militia of Love is currently recording its full-length debut within the dusty confines of a Prunedale barn. The as-of-yet-untitled album will include a new favorite of Melendez, titled “Walkin’.” He describes the number as “up tempo rub-a-dub reggae.”
While four of the five bandmembers reside in Monterey County, Militia of Love’s local shows are few and far between. The group used to do a once-a-month gig at Planet Gemini, and now plays sporadically at Monterey Live and other venues, including Acme Coffee’s recent two-year anniversary party. “We play maybe once a month,” Melendez says.
Opening for the Militia of Love will be the eight-person reggae band Dub FX, which features members of longtime Santa Cruz outfit Dub Congress and the popular ‘90s Bay Area reggae group Inka Inka. Dub FX’s original numbers include the UB40 sound-a-like “Little Bird,” and “Tell Me What You Want,” which recalls Steel Pulse on its seminal 1990 album True Democracy. Another track titled “Tiger” begins with a scratching turntable and morphs into a tight reggae tune with horns.
Robbie Rasta’s Militia of Love and
Dub FX performs at 9:30pm Friday, May 25, at
Monterey Live, 414 Alvarado St., Monterey. $10. 646-1415