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Unchained Melodies of Marley's Ghost : Unfettered by Labels or Too Many Rehearsals, Old Friends Let Their Folk Roots Carry Them

March 12, 1993|RICK VANDERKNYFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Marley's Ghost sounds like the name of a reggae cover band, and indeed the Seattle-based group that uses the moniker does play a Jamaican tune or two.

They also play country, Western swing, Delta blues, gospel, New Orleans Mardi Gras parade music, bluegrass, Cajun workouts, traditional Celtic tunes and just about any other kind of music that catches their attention.

Multi-instrumentalists all, and singers too, the members of Marley's Ghost came out of the '60s folk boom with a love for roots-oriented music that still drives them. The quartet plays Saturday at Ball Junior High School in Anaheim, as part of the Living Tradition folk-music series. Its name, incidentally, is equally a nod to reggae kingpin Bob Marley and Dickens' Jacob Marley.

"It's a band full of longtime friends," said Dan Wheetman, a singer and songwriter with the group who plays a variety of instruments, from bass and rhythm guitar to fiddle and banjo. "I've know them for 20-some years, through the folk-music scene in California."

Despite the long-time acquaintance, the group never played together until a St. Patrick's Day concert in San Francisco in 1986. "We played the gig there, and it felt great," Wheetman said. That informal get-together led to an appearance at that year's Strawberry Spring Music Festival near Yosemite, and then to a formal alliance as Marley's Ghost.

Wheetman spent seven years in John Denver's touring and recording band and has served as co-music director and cast member for "Lost Highway," a musical based on the short life of Hank Williams. (It played La Jolla last year and the Mark Taper Forum in 1988).

Wheetman, who lives in Seattle, was reached by phone in Nashville, where he has been writing music with guitarist Pat Flynn, formerly of New Grass Revival.

Other members of Marley's Ghost are Jon Wilcox, a mandolin player who lives in Santa Barbara, Mike Phelan of Sonora, Calif., who plays lead guitar and other instruments, and Ed Littlefield Jr., another Seattle-area resident who plays everything from steel guitar to Highland bagpipes. Littlefield also runs the independent Sage Arts record label, which has released four Marley's Ghost albums.

The first few albums reflect the group's eclecticism and versatility--who else covers Bob Wills and Jimmy Cliff?--while the latest, 1992's "How Can I Keep From Singing," is an album of gospel tunes in a variety of traditional styles.

Over the years, the group has added a number of original tunes while maintaining the diversity of its influences.

Because the band members are so spread out geographically, it can be hard to find rehearsal time. Most new tunes are worked out on stage--not a big problem, given the group's common grounding in traditional-music styles. They get together for 10- to 15-day tours of the West Coast about three times a year, plus an annual tour of the East.

Wheetman said touring has built a strong following that builds each time. "It's slow and painstaking to be independent. It has to grow organically," he said. "We've been received pretty well," which he says he finds a healthy sign in the face of a music-industry that prizes easy categorization.

Wheetman says there is a portion of the music audience that is hungry for more honest musical expression.

The Northwest has long been a hotbed of what Wheetman called "alternative" approaches to traditional music. He's hoping the scene sees a trickle-down effect from the grunge phenomenon, because of all the music-industry types scouring the area looking for the next Nirvana or Pearl Jam.

As for Wheetman's own reaction to grunge rock, this Ghost says he admires the spirit, if not all of its manifestations. "I'm not a devotee, because I'm an acoustical guy," he said. "I can intellectually understand and appreciate it more than it touches me on a spirit or heart level.

"I'm 44 years old," he added, laughing. "Come on, let's face it."

Marley's Ghost performs Saturday at 8 p.m. at Ball Junior High School, 1500 W. Ball Road, Anaheim, $9. (714) 638-1466. They also play Thursday at the Bluebird Cafe in Santa Barbara; March 19 at the Folk Heritage Series in Del Mar; March 20 at the Acoustic Music Series in Pasadena; April 4 at the Barn in Riverside. Information: (213) 650-0365.

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