"SERPENT WISDOM"

By Bob Bahr

Louisville is by no means swept up in a frenzy over world beat music. That is why it's even more surprising that there is a band like Serpent Wisdom in town.

Simple, fun-loving, yet urgent and politically charged, Serpent Wisdom's music is a dance drug that heightens the consciousness. Serpent Wisdom is Jack Son Renfro on vocals and percussion, Earbie Johnson on congas and percussion, Tom Pierce on twelve-string guitar and Steve Dalton on percussion. Guest vocalist and pianist Alex Kelly adds skill and beauty to selected songs.

Serpent Wisdom has been around since 1988, but the latest incamation is still toddling and there were some falls at a recent gig at The Rudyard Kipling. It became a joke with the band that they couldn't get together for a tight ending on any song in the first set. The band had equipment trouble, punctuality problems and musical growing pains. You forgive them for their looseness, for Serpent Wisdom's music is a wonderfully free and willowy amalgam of reggae, pop, jazz, folk and international flavor.

The hypnotic beats and tight strumming of the expressive twelve-string slowly smother you in a trance and the warm, prophetic lyrics complete the mood. I smiled as soon as I walked in, forty minutes before the set and heard a run-through of "World Dance," which they debuted that night. Pungent yet tasteful piano by Kelly and from-the-gut vocals from Renfro recalled nothing I've heard; I struggled to place it on Rickie Lee Jones' The Magazine. The lyrics, all by Renfro, are the difference. "Feel the vibe/We are all members of one tribe," Kelly sang.

Now before you dismiss this band as granola throwbacks to the Sixties, read the papers. This is the brand of strong, idealistic, activist music that took root in the Sixties, with several differences. First, this music has now been proved irrefutably relevant and correct. Even our elected officials in Washington realize that we as a species have to pull together now to save the world to save ourselves. Perhaps we should have listened the first time to the idealists of the Sixties.

Second, hear the band. The world beat sound they have is not so astonishing; it's the culmination of the international movement started by Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and David Byrne in the 1980s. But the band doesn't have, say, an African feel because one member of the band is from Africa. Less exotic but more astoundingly, the band is eclectic and international because the members of the band have listened and been influenced by music from outside our culture as they developed their own sound. The band members are the front line of a new breed of musicians, brought up and impacted by the world as a global village. They've come equipped with a background that's a rich stew of spicy musics from around the world reggae, African rhythms, jazz, punk, R&B, American folk. Not that most musicians in Louisville aren't familiar with these sounds, just that Serpent Wisdom is the first to show it and use it effectively.

While most of the lyrics deal with social issues of the day, including equality for all, preservation of the earth and the oneness of humanity as a brotherhood/sisterhood; Renfro also sang about the basic unity of all religions and about the love of a woman. The songs were nearly indescribable musically, with only one or two songs that you could nail down as reggae. On "I Walk the Land," Pierce displayed his wholly competent picking and thoughtful rhythm playing and Kelly sat at the piano to give the tune a nice solid low end.

"World Dance" was a tremendous debut, moving and elegant. The strong original "Unapartheid" clinched the second set, bolstered by Renfro's idiosyncratic vocals and meaningful gestures and expressions. "Unapartheid" gets my vote as the single best original written by a Louisville band in two years. The crowd-pleasing "One God" wasn't as gripping as it has been in the past, but the dance floor was still packed. The chant Of "Jehovah is Rama is Allah is God" and the conga line rhythm of "One God" can be infectious, frenzied, primal joy. That night it was only excellent.

A night listening to Serpent Wisdom is warm and rich. It gives you the same good friendly feeling you get when you see the Grateful Dead and, in fact, the Serpent Wisdom faithful are called Snakeheads. When Renfro sings "If some of us weren't so damn empty/All of us would have our fill," he is emphatic but not militant. It's more an emotional plea for his brothers and sisters to wake up.

When the current roster of Serpent Wisdom develops a groove, they will be a highlight band in Louisville. Serpent Wisdom currently plays Thursday nights at The Rudyard Kipling at Oak and Fourth. They have a tape 'on sale at Ear X-tacy Records on Bardstown Road.