Showtime at Mango's on Ocean Drive. A few moments before six on a Thursday evening, the reggae band once known as Innasense is milling about the postage-stamp stage -- checking gear, tweaking instruments, scanning the small happy-hour crowd for babes. 4:20 singer/keyboardist Jimi Dred sits on the side of the stage and tokes a spliff through a tangle of long blond dreads, then offers it to a friend sitting a few feet away.
Without a word or sign, the band assembles onstage, each musician moved by some inner guide, like iron filings before a magnet. The music starts with the same spontaneous ease, effortlessly sliding from one reggae dancehall song to another as if the band were one musician.
"We read each other's minds. We don't have song lists and never play the same show twice," says Dred. "We could play twelve hours and never repeat a song. At the end of each song, we'll look at each other, mostly me and the drummer [Peter McEvilley], and call a song, and we'll use the beat of whatever song we're playing to count out the next song."
Mango's, 900 Ocean Dr, Miami Beach
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It's a style Dred says they got from playing with the band's dancehall DJ and singer Prince Patrick, and from vying for the hearts and hips of the audience in clubs dominated by turntables. (The band also includes Harold Estime on bass.)
With half the band into roots reggae and the rest fans of dancehall, 4:20 mixes the two into a bass-heavy sound with a beat that stays constant throughout each 30-minute stretch. Achieving these seamless sets didn't just happen over a season, but through many years of constant gigs.
The story of Innasense reads like a Viking saga -- a tale of a band starting out in the early days before South Beach was hip, traveling through a decade of cross-country Kerouac-ian adventures that have led as far away as Hawaii, and finally ending up back in Miami in that rarest of musical states -- stability. Innasense has boasted the same four core members from the beginning till now.
"It's the only security we can find -- that's probably why we've made it this long," says Dred, "because we've always been on the verge of success but never really got it, and we'll just keep trying. And then at this point after being together twelve years, we're like an aged bottle of wine, we're in demand. We can make a couple phone calls and line up a tour and go out and make money. And we can come to Miami and get a gig like that as a house band at Mango's."
The band started out as anything but stable -- a quick assemblage of players for a single tour of Belize in 1990, playing a song written in celebration of that country's ten years of independence. It was organized by the songwriter, a man named Scratch, and the only one of those originals to leave the group. Dred came down to Miami from Jacksonville, where his previous band had just parted ways. Up there he'd been camping on the beach and fishing for his dinner with a fellow bandmate. There was nowhere to go but up.
After the Belize stint, the band decided to give Miami a shot and landed regular gigs at the now defunct Tropics on Ocean Drive and at Sundays on the Bay in Key Biscayne. Bolstered by a Best Reggae Band vote in New Times for 1991, the band recorded an album, Run For Cover, and started on its touring odyssey.
One story of the early days shows a young band keeping reins on its hard-partying leader and wild man Scratch, who exploded inside a D.C. club one night when the bartender refused him a drink.
"He was cussing out the Ethiopians who owned the club," recounts Dred. "'You Ethiopians, you killed Haile Selassie, you fuckers.' I remember that night, we had to carry the guy out, one by the foot and one by the head, and took him to the RV and I had to lay on him for a half-hour till we drove away. And then he sobbed all night and fired everyone in the band. He was the leader of the band, but he was a nut."
For Scratch the end would come not long after, on a second tour of Belize and another wild rampage.
"He's like, 'Screw the tour, we're staying in Belize, and we're gonna live here forever and be happy,'" says Dred.
The rest of the guys wanted no part of it and went back to finish the U.S. tour, leaving the Belizian authorities to deal with the mad Scratch.
What remained of Innasense would end up in Hawaii, promoting a surprise hit -- a reggae version of "Always Something There to Remind Me" -- in heavy rotation on the islands' popular reggae radio stations, and living the life of rock stars. (They also hit big with "Everybody Loves a Rider" and "Book of Rules.") But what goes up must come down, especially in a market as small as the islands. When the wave of fame crested, the band returned to the mainland. Soon after they would drive to Lexington, Kentucky, for a gig that no one at the club had heard about.
Innasense was no stranger to the ups and downs of road life. For several summers during the mid-Nineties, it was the house band at a popular club in Philadelphia. The gig came with posh apartments, set up by the club owners, and a fat salary, especially for a bunch of scruffy reggae boys. But when they tried to push their luck through the winter, the gigs dried up and they found themselves heading to California with barely enough money for gas.
"We get to the club in California where we're supposed to be playing, and the guy doesn't know what the fuck we're talking about," says Dred. "I remember walking out on the pier looking at the water thinking, 'I'm jumping in, man. I'm gonna kill myself right now. This sucks, dude.'"
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Six months later, they're livin' la vida loca in a big house on a Southern California beach, skiing in the mountains during the day and gigging at night. The band's fortunes have since evened out and are on a gradual rise. But with defeats that would demolish a less hardy band, Innasense has managed to stay together, riding out the rough spots and surfing the highs.
These days the band is trying out a new name, 4:20, and a new album of mostly cover tunes made on the cheap and sold only at its shows. Ironically the cover set is doing better than any of its previous three CDs of labored originals, due in no small part to the tight sound the band developed over so many live gigs.
Back at Mango's, a busboy casually sings along while cleaning a table near the stage. A waitress gives a familiar wink to the DJ roaming the crowd with his cordless mike, pounding fists with the gentlemen and hugging the ladies. So tight and clean, even the tourists here from Wisconsin know that Innasense has done this before.
"It took us ten years to learn how to get along, and now we really get along well. There's less fights now," says Dred. "Over time we just learned how to maneuver each others' personalities to where we just do not argue. It's not worth it. [We say,] 'Fuck you.' 'Yeah, fuck you, too.' 'Love you.' 'See you tomorrow.' That kind of thing. It's cool."