It’s been many years now since HR first took leave of the sound and the fury that characterized his groundbreaking work as the frontman of Bad Brains. Having immersed himself in the Rastafari faith since the early ‘80s, he chose to put the past behind him and reboot his style under the rubric of reggae. Hardcore fans thought it was just a phase, a side-hustle employed between stints with the band that made him famous. But now, two decades later, it’s clear that his interest is sincere.
HR brings his mature sound to Surfer the Bar on Wednesday night, Dec. 19, backed by the band he’s toured with for the last four years: Ezekiel Zagar on guitar, Joshua Freshy on bass, Wesely Raust on drums. The most important players, however, will be the audience themselves. Their energy has buoyed the leader through a rough spell that included brain surgery. Now back in good health, HR his appy to be back on stage. “Oh man, it feels great”, he says. “The kids have a lot to do with my feeling great.”
Just like fellow Rastafari Bob Marley, HR is a dread and an Aquarius who entered this world in the month of Joseph. Born Paul Hudson in Liverpool in 1956, he's one of that city’s many major contributions to music history. Hudson and younger brother Earl were both Air Force kids with an American dad and Jamaican mom. The family eventually moved to Washington, D.C., where the brothers (with Earl on drums) joined bassist Daryl Jenifer and legendary guitarist Dr. Know to form a band called Mind Power in 1976. They were rechristened Bad Brains a year later. The name comes from a Ramones song, and the phrase “Mind Power” would return 41 years later as the title of their 11th album. HR and his friends represented the point of precise intersection between punk rock, hardcore and reggae, the latter being the prime directive for most of his career.
The four founders long ago launched successful solo careers, and a new players have filled in various open band spots on occasion, but Bad Brains’ creative output has remained consistent and compelling over the years. They're probably best known for the album I Against I, released by SST in 1986, but fans often cite their debut album or their very first home-studio demo session as their finest hour. There’s something for all, and that’s why HR is truly one of the most influential frontmen of the past 40 years, as important as the giants he rolled with back when—Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye and Nick Cave.
In his 63rd year, HR remains a primal force in the business. His very presence on stage is a testament to his resilience and his will to create. He bounced back from brain surgery less than a year ago. (This came not even two years after Dr. Know was nearly lost to a heart attack in 2015.) He had been living for months with what his wife described as “almost constant pain” resulting from chronic headaches caused by an obscure condition called SUNCT. He’d also had other conditions put him on the ropes, but never for long."
HR has been a Rastafari ambassador for over 30 years. His role in spreading the word in those early, post-Marley 1980s cannot be overemphasized. It’s one of the topics explored in Finding Joseph I, a documentary of his life that was released in 2016. For those looking to explore Rasta for themselves, he says it all starts with the Bible.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s the Metaphysical Bible, or the Study Bible, or the King James Version, or the Gideon Bible. They’re all connected to God.”
Opening for HR will be Danka, aka Matt Henderson, a veteran troubadour of the local scene whose skill-set encompasses aspects of doo-wop, folk-rock and, of course, reggae. Having plied his trade at venues all over Northeast Florida, his sound will be familiar to many of those in attendance.
HR stands for “Human Rights,” which is also the name of the band he’s touring with now. It’s also a recurring theme in his music, along with matters of personal liberty and the need to maintain a Positive Mental Attitude (PMA). This message probably resonates even deeper than usual in in light of current events.
The message HR preaches is one that resonates all the more at the end of a difficult year for Northeast Florida. We need to embrace life and find joy whenever possible. For him, as always, it goes back to the faith that has sustained him for over 35 years.
“It means a lot to be in focus, and to be able to rationally decide which team one wants to devote their time and effort to. If we can just go to the Bible to answer our prayers, one can be assured by God of whatever they need. That’s what we have to do to stay on the up-and-up, and not get caught up in the negativity that is plaguing this world.”