For the true music fan, there’s nothing quite like a good live concert, and over the years — more of them than I care to remember — I’ve been lucky enough to see some remarkable performances.
Ah, the memories! The legendary Duke Ellington Orchestra, circa 1967 at Manchester Free Trade Hall, along with a not-bad singer called Ella Fitzgerald; the Rolling Stones, in their raunchy prime in the early 1970s at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, where the opening act was another not-bad singer, this time by the name of Stevie Wonder; Aretha Franklin at Chicago’s House of Blues last year; the aforementioned Stevie Wonder, by now a headliner and a legend in his own right, raising the roof at the Montreal Forum around 1986.
But the musical memories I treasure most all have a strong reggae connection. I’ve been following reggae for 30-odd years now, and I’ve seldom seen a show that wasn’t outstanding by any yardstick — whether it’s been Bob Marley at a cavernous sports arena, or an obscure dancehall artist at a smoky basement social club.
There’s a simple enough reason for this consistent excellence: Jamaican audiences. They’re always tough. They can be brutal. For one thing, they don’t applaud a performer just for showing up on stage. You’ve got to do something, and it had better be something out of the ordinary, before Jamaicans will see fit to put their hands together.
If you’re merely good, they’ll remain impassive (anything less and you’re in big trouble). If you’re really, really good, you may merit a polite round of applause. If you’re outstanding, they’ll start to show some enthusiasm.
If you’re absolutely no-holds-barred sensational, they’ll really cut loose. The inevitable result of Jamaicans being so hard to impress is that reggae artists are forced to put on exceptional stage shows merely to survive, much less prosper.
My five favourite reggae memories?
• Bob Marley and the Wailers at the legendary One Love Concert for Peace in Kingston, Jamaica. The concert was staged in 1978 to support a truce between Kingston’s warring political gangs, and it featured virtually every big name in reggae at the height of the music’s classic roots era. Sadly, it didn’t realise many of its commendable political and social objectives, but musically it was a killer.
After outstanding performances by Culture, Peter Tosh, Jacob Miller, Ras Michael and a host of other reggae greats, Marley took the stage just before dawn. It was his first appearance in Jamaica after 18 months of self-imposed exile following an unsuccessful attempt on his life by gunmen, and the drama, like the music, would have been hard to surpass.
But Marley himself topped it all when he practically forced arch political rivals Michael Manley and Edward Seaga to join him — and join hands — on stage. I was sitting in the front row, centre, through it all, and was only a few feet away when some of the most famous photographs in the history of popular music were being shot. As they say in the credit card ads, priceless.
• Lucky Dube at Reggae Sunsplash in Montego Bay, 1991. The great South African reggae star was virtually unknown in Jamaica when the Sunsplash promoters flew him in for his Jamaican debut. Dube, clearly determined to cement his growing international reputation by establishing himself as a star in the home of reggae, simply tore the place apart. He hit the stage running, actually, and never let up for an instant during a performance that left Jamaican jaws collectively dropping. As I wrote in the following year’s Reggae Sunsplash magazine: “By the time it was all over, it had dawned on thousands of Jamaicans that the music they had given the world had been lovingly embraced and embellished, adopted and adapted, and brought back to them revitalized by a young South African many of them had barely heard of.”
• Culture at the St Kitts Music Festival, 1997. He’s been around for what seems like forever, but when it comes to roots reggae, no-one does it better than Joseph Hill, Culture’s leader and arguably Jamaican music’s greatest living singer. Culture’s Music Festival performance was also the group’s debut in St Kitts, and Joseph was inspired. Live reggae doesn’t get any better.
• Peter Tosh at the Theatre St Denis, Montreal, circa 1978. I saw the late, great Tosh 14 or 15 times, but never in such commanding form. With a high-powered team in his corner, including legendary reggae publicist Charles Comer, Tosh was out to challenge his former Wailers band for international reggae supremacy. He came to Montreal to play, was backed by a great band, and it all came together for two hours of intense, hard-hitting roots music.
• The late Dennis Brown at the Club Soda, Montreal, circa 1988. No-one in reggae was bigger than Dennis in the late 1980s, and this was a rare opportunity to catch him at a small, intimate club. Backed by a particularly fine version of Lloyd Parkes’s wonderful We The People Band, Dennis put on a show for a few hundred people that would have had an arena rocking. Reggae heaven.