Roots reggae band The Expanders are always on the move. Following their third studio album, aptly titled Hustling Culture, the Los Angeles-based group recently released a second volume of reggae covers called Old Time Something Come Back Again Vol. 2. With covers of songs from Burning Spear, The Ethiopians, The Itals and more, they’re inspiring a new generation of reggae fans to dig deep.
“We picked pretty obscure songs because there’s so much great music that came out of Jamaica in the early ‘70s that not a lot of people besides nerdy record collectors know. And we wanted to showcase that,” says frontman/rhythm guitarist Devin Morrison. “For a lot of people, it’s almost like they are Expanders originals because they haven’t heard them before.”
The five-piece has an affection for Jamaican vocal groups and the 14-track album is a pitch-perfect, beachy, California take on conscious roots music that’s heavy on organ and three-part harmonies. The band effortlessly switches from wistful love songs such as The Ethiopians’ “Life Is A Funny Thing” to political tunes including Ghetto Connection’s “Strugglers’ Time” from 1979.
“Lyrically many of these songs were being written in the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica by people who were going through the heartbreak of poverty, and the legacy of slavery and colonialism, and the lingering effects,” Morrison says, adding that there is a timelessness to reggae. “People don’t like to talk about what’s going on today [that] it’s a universal thing. These things just never stop.”
Unlike the first volume of covers released in 2012, which featured songs the band had been playing live for years, this latest release will be entirely new to The Expanders’ audience.
But The Expanders are much more than a cover band – many of the members are involved in other projects and are avid crate diggers who came up through Southern California’s ska and reggae scene. Morrison and guitarist/vocalist John Butcher lived down the street from each other as kids and grew up partially under the tutelage of influential Jamaican record collector and archivist Roger Steffens, who made tapes for the friends and let them explore his collection of golden age Jamaican tunes.
“We were lucky to be exposed to so much old school music, and it rubbed off on us,” Morrison says. He and Butcher started The Expanders in high school, emulating some of their favorite reggae groups without any real plans to take the band out of their practice space. While many local roots reggae bands play in a reggae-rock style, The Expanders took a decidedly different route.
“Some of our favorite groups were harmony groups like The Ethiopians, The Gladiators, The Wailers – but when John and I started singing together neither of us were good lead singers. So we figured out if we just sing harmonies the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts,” Morrison says of the band’s old school sound. “We were lucky enough that, coincidentally, I have a high midrange and John has a low mid-range.”
After a brief stint as a punk band, The Expanders returned to reggae in 2003 and met bassist/vocalist Chiquis Lozoya (who brings a high range/falsetto to the mix) at long-running ska night The Blue Beat Lounge in 2005. They added drummer John Asher, began recording their first, self-titled album in 2006 and brought on organist Roy Fishell in 2014. Although the group’s first album took a staggering 5 years to release, national reggae bands such as Slightly Stoopid and The Expendables took notice and invited The Expanders on tour.
“We’ve been lucky enough that some of these bands that are bigger in the American scene…kind of got hip to our first record and wanted to bring us on tour with them,” Morrison says. “Their booking agents were probably against it, but that did a lot for us because it quickly put us in front of audience sizes that we probably had no business being in front of.”
The Expanders would also serve as the backing band for a handful of Jamaican artists who would come through Los Angeles, including The Maytones and Ethiopians singer/songwriter Leonard Dillon. Their first backing gig, however, was for legendary rocksteady and reggae singer Alton Ellis in 2006.
“He was super, super awesome and down to earth. He showed up to our second rehearsal with a 12 pack of Corona and a large pizza – he doesn’t even drink!” Morrison says excitedly, adding that the gig went very well. “He gave us a lot of confidence, we really studied for that gig and wanted to do a good job and he was really appreciative that we knew his music. He said, ‘Well you know it’s a dream come true for me because when I was a teenager recording this music in the ‘60s, it was our dream that kids in America would be listening to it. To meet you young kids who know my music so well is exactly what we were going for 40 years ago.’ I think we as a band owe a lot to Alton Ellis.”
The band has toured consistently in recent years, including a nationwide tour in 2016 with locals Arise Roots and headliners Tribal Seeds. That same year, Hustling Culture hit No. 1 on the Billboard, iTunes and Amazon reggae charts – even Roger Steffens, who normally has records sent to him, went to Ameoba Records to pick up the album. It was the first record he had purchased in 30 years, Morrison recalls.
While Hustling Culture showcased the group’s growing songwriting capabilities, Old Time Vol. 2 benefits from stronger technique and cohesion. “You can just really hear that this band has been touring and playing together,” Morrison notes, adding that they recorded 26 songs for album over three days. “One of the things I’m most thankful for being in this band is nobody has a musical ego to speak of; their first priority is listening to each other and doing what they do to make the music happen.”
For their rich Southern California history, The Expanders spend more time touring nationally and have found particular resonance in places like Texas and Florida. The band is about to kick off a headlining tour that will hit Colorado, Salt Lake City, Washington, Oregon and Northern California before heading home to The Observatory in Santa Ana on Oct. 19 and Romano’s in Riverside on Oct. 20. This time, they’ll be the bigger band inviting their friends along.
“This is the first time that we brought a package on tour with us, often times we have local band open but we’re bring Iya Terra with us and a band called For Peace Band from Guam,” Morrison says. “We’ve been really lucky in that sense that the music really connects us to great people, whether it’s big bands wanting to bring us on tour, or bands we dig wanting to come on tour.”
Despite their success and myriad national tours, The Expanders are still diligently working to build their following beyond dedicated reggae heads. “Headlining shows are still something we put a lot of thought into,” Morrison says. “We’re still a small band with a small fanbase, but also when you’re a band our size, your fans are pretty hardcore.”
The Expanders perform at the Constellation Room, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. Thurs., Oct 19, 9 p.m. $15. All ages.