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Maxi Priest's reggae runs at maximum, even when he's relaxing


Most performers wouldn't consider a coast-to-coast package tour an ideal way to relax, but for Maxi Priest, playing the 10th Anniversary Reggae Sunsplash Festival is virtually a summer vacation.

"I'm relaxed, I'm cool, I'm having fun," he says, over the phone from a Mansfield, Mass. hotel. "I'm taking the time to kind of like meet people after the show and things like that, which I never really get a chance to do on my own tour.

"Normally you go out there and you do like two hours, two hours and a half on the stage by yourself. And here I do, like, 45 minutes, 50 minutes. It's comfortable. It seems like a reward to me."

If so, it's only because he's worked so hard building a name for himself over the last decade. Since his initial success in Britain in the mid-'80s, the Jamaican reggae singer has been working virtually nonstop, and while that paid off in terms of his commercial success -- particularly after his single "Close to You" topped the American pop charts in 1990 -- it left some of Priest's friends worried about his personal life.

"For years, everybody's been telling me, 'You need to take a little break for a little bit and enjoy some of it,' " he says. "But I have that drive in me that just kept going and going and going. I just had to kind of come 'round to that myself, to kind of understand that you have to stop that train for a minute, or else it's going to crash."

So after touring behind his 1992 album "Fe Real," he decided to take some time off and is only now just easing back into the swing of things -- assuming, that is, you consider working simultaneously on a new album and a concert tour to be "easing in."

"It's helping me a lot, though," says Priest of the double workload. "It's nice to keep the live vibe flowing while you're building an album. You go into the studio and everything is computers and drum machine, you know what I mean? You can easily fall into that and keep everything kind of rigid. Doing the live stuff kind of makes you realize how much people appreciate the live side of stuff."

So why bother with the computers and drum machines at all? "That's just the time we live in," he says. Dance hall is the dominant sound in reggae these days, and as Priest well knows, "You can't run away from what's going down. You've got to kind of work it and not make it work you. It does tend to keep you kind of rigid, I think. I want to loosen up a lot more on this next album.

"But the drum machine will always be there. There's no running away from that."

Then again, there's no reason Priest would need to run away. He has already had significant pop success with dance hall, thanks to "Housecall," his 1991 collaboration with Shabba Ranks, and his smooth, soulful phrasing works well against its insistent, mechanical rhythms. So he sees dance hall as fair game.

"Why should I limit myself?" he says. "I have an ability to sing, so I sing. I sing all different types of music."

Besides, the rise of dance hall has helped make reggae more popular than ever in the pop world. "It has a good beat, it has a good vibe to it," he says. "I think that it has brought a unification throughout the world. When you come to the Reggae Sunsplash, or reggae artist shows now, there's a mixture of audience. It's like, hey, this is cool. It's brought a unification that I don't think any government in the world has been able to do."

Priest's confessions

To hear excerpts from Maxi Priest's last album, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6132 after you hear the greeting.


Reggae Sunsplash Festival

When: Sunday, July 10, 3 p.m.

Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion

Tickets: $23.50 pavilion, $19.50 lawn

Call: (410) 481-7328 for tickets, (410) 730-2424 for information

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