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Arabic Soul via Seattle

Maktub singer Watts sponges up various styles

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He's a stand-up comedian who sings like Al Green, leading a soul/roots/trip-hop band from Seattle with an Arabic name. The fact that Maktub (pronounced Mock-toob, which translates as "it is written, or "destiny,") flourishes in the grunge capitol of Seattle is a tribute in part to vocalist Reggie Watts' four-and-a-half octave range and the band's funky soul vibe that sounds at times like it could have come out of Philly in the 70s. But calling it Philly Soul sets Watts to cackling. The singer says the band's sound has as much to do with the second generation of soul as the first. "Our drummer Davis (Martin) is a huge fan of ?love (hip-hop group Root's drummer Quest Love), who says he got his inspiration from drum machines. And Davis plays like a drum machine." Watts says the group's music had a huge influence on him because acid jazz and trip-hop were at their peak when Maktub came on the scene in '96. He liked the smooth feel of it, and incorporated elements of it into their latest record, Say What You Mean, for a sound more refined than most rock and pop.

And to Watts, pop is not a bad concept. The singer professes a love for bubble gum pop, and the cheesier the better. "I have a great time dancing with Debbie Gibson and Madonna," he laughs. "It's fun. I think that we have so much serious music nowadays, and with where we're at as a world community and as a country, I think there's just too much of that dark, serious music."

And in a move that would have most rockers down on their knees retching or ready to bash in the blasphemer's head with their guitar, Watts unashamedly admits an admiration for the music of Britney Spears. "She isn't really a songwriter, but the songwriters that work for Britney Spears are absolutely amazing. That song "Toxic" is ridiculous — it's got so many hooks, it doesn't make sense. I wanna hate it, if it was someone else besides Britney Spears, I'd totally be able to enjoy it. But as a song unto itself without attaching Britney to it, it's an amazing song."

To further ensure himself a head bashing, Watts also comes out in favor of 80s big hair rockers Whitesnake and Def Leppard. "I love going for things that people think are cheesy because often times there's greatness there," the singer said. "Some of those groups from the 80s, they really rocked, they were amazing songwriters and incredible musicians." Watts cites Maktub's "Nobody Loves You Like I Do" as paying homage to those arena rockers, but being a bit darker and more influenced by Led Zeppelin.

Although he borrows from pop, when Watts lends his voice to it, it's no longer cheesy. And even though he says he never studied Al Green, on the title cut Watts has Green's sound down to the soulful grunts and groans, and the falsetto that he and Green float so easily in and out of.

But until he started touring with Maktub, the furthest south Watts had ever been was Great Falls, Montana. A self admitted Top-40 kid who was more familiar with Casey Kasem than Al Green, Watts grew up in a multi-cultural household with an African-American Air Force officer and his French wife. Describing himself as more of an observer than someone who just dove into things and did them, Watts investigated all the scenes, from the kids with the Skoal rings and the Copenhagen rings in their back pockets to the nerds, the geeks, the jocks and the intellects — by the end of high school winding up settling with what he labels the nobodies. "We really didn't have any kind of social affiliation, just created our own thing, listened to cool underground music. Montana was a huge influence on me because there was a huge diversity there. I got to try on lots of different hats."

That diversity comes through in the music as well as in Watt's second career as a stand-up comedian, performing an act he describes as "improvised, non-linear, absurdist, pseudo-intellectual stand-up comedy."

Some might think that Watts is still doing his comedy act when he claims Whitesnake is one of his favorite bands right up there beside Led Zep and the Who. But it's no laughing matter when a guy can take Whitesnake material and make it sound like Al Green. For Maktub, that's a destiny that will stand the test of time.

Maktub plays the Visulite Thursday, with Baleen opening at 9pm. Tickets are $10.

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