Upstream spices up music

When Upstream brings its mix of reggae and soca to the Newport Beach Civic Center this weekend, it will not be the work of a tribute band bringing a little imagined Caribbean spice to town.

Rather, it will be music whose roots extend into Trinidad's soil — almost literally.

Lead singer Haile Blackman, the son of soca pioneer Ras Shorty I, spent several years of his childhood living in the forest with his family. His father, who had had a religious conversion and changed his name from Garfield Blackman, decided to step away from the trappings of superstardom. For Blackman, that meant an adolescence without money or a nearby supermarket, among other things.

"We were just tossed into it, and it was an experience," Blackman said Tuesday at a shaded table outside the Newport Beach Public Library. "I wouldn't change it for the world, though. It was a great experience."

The Pasadena resident credits those formative years for a number of his adult values: independence, resourcefulness, lack of concern about money. That upbringing also gave him a sterling work ethic, and he's put that to use as a bandleader for the last 24 years.

Upstream, whose current lineup also includes Blackman's brother Johnny on drums, Andre Morris on keyboards, David King on bass and Derek Brewster on steel drums, will close out the Newport Beach City Arts Commission's annual Concerts in the Park series Sunday. The free concert will take place on the Civic Green, and attendees are encouraged to bring blankets, beach chairs and picnic baskets.

This year marks the third time Upstream has played in the summer concert series, following well-attended gigs in 2006 and 2008, according to Library Services Manager Tim Hetherton,

"Of all the concerts, the Upstream one is supposedly the one where the most people dance," he said, noting that the first two shows this summer drew about 1,500 patrons each.

The band, which formed in 1989, aims for an eclectic mix in its set lists — originals, Shorty tunes, even Neil Diamond covers. Those familiar tunes, Blackman said, help attract a wide audience, but he noted that soca is no longer the obscure genre it once was.

"Back in the day, like 20 years ago, you'd say 'soca' and nobody had no idea what it was," he said. "You still go to places where you say 'soca' and people say, 'What is that?', but [for the] majority, it's become a world music that people can identify with. The funny thing about soca is that even the pop music that you're listening to has a lot of soca in it already."

After the Newport show, Upstream has a busy month ahead, including park concerts Aug. 18 in Laguna Beach and Aug. 21 in Brea. In a typical year, the band plays about 100 shows.

"We've been busy," Brewster said. "We've been busy bringing a taste of the Caribbean to everybody."

If You Go

What: Upstream

Where: Civic Green, Newport Beach Civic Center, 100 Civic Center Drive

When: 6 p.m. Sunday

Cost: Free

Information: (949) 548-2411 or

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