As I eagerly anticipated the Wailers concert set for Brooklyn Bowl Friday, I took a moment to look back at the history and realize how fortunate we are that reggae took on such an important role in the musical landscape. The songs composed by the King of Reggae will always resonate in our souls, no matter what incarnation they take. None of the Wailers from the original lineup from the mid-1960′s remain with the iconic music group, which originally included Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and others, but the everlasting contagious spirit of peace and love remains in droves. In 1972, music production mogul Chris Blackwell gifted the world with Robert Nesta Marley, bringing reggae music to mainstream America. The musical landscape has never been the same after his footprint.
In the 1970′s, Reggae was generally a foreign genre of music in the US. Since Marley’s meteoric rise and tragic passing in the Spring of 1981, it has never reached anything resembling the kind of success and status he achieved. Although legions of fans today, of all ages, can recite his “Legend” greatest hits package, they would be challenged to name other viable reggae acts. The great Peter Tosh has been deceased for 25 years, Jimmy Cliff has long been out of the spotlight since reaching his pinnacle of success of “The Harder They Come” in the early 70′s and while Steel Pulse still performs live, it’s usually to relatively small crowds. What other true reggae acts, representing the old school reggae guard can you name? Yet, many hip music lovers claim to love reggae – they really mean they just love Bob. Thus, I was fortunate to share a night with many like-minded aficionados of BMW, who were smart enough to realize that today when the Wailers sing Bob’s songs, even without Bob’s presence, we are ultimately better served than by any other offering a Friday night in the vast City that never sleeps could offer. We were not disappointed.
I’ve heard the argument numerous times by too many blasphemous non-believers that, “All reggae songs sound the same.” While respecting anyone’s subjective opinion on music, I remember an older friend once stating the Grateful Dead sound like “one long guitar twang improv jam”, but these types of statements reek of narrow short-sightedness. One can choose any album from the plethora in the Marley catalog, and will find no need to ever skip or fast forward it until its final note has completed and left one in a mellow mood. How many records in this day and age of the ‘hit single’ and digital download can claim that feat? Maybe James Taylor, Sade or Steely Dan once also provided such a dependable luxury of a complete album with no weak track, but they are no longer commercially relevant.
Reggae remains timeless with Marley, and in the ears of this writer, still holds the mantle alone as unquestionably the strongest writer in the history of music. What sets Marley apart from his peers is his ability to play the part of gifted genius in various mediums of songwriting. Marley brings his energy and articulate battle cry for revolution in “War” (a song based on a speech by Haile Selassie) and “Zimbabwe” (a song the African Country once took as its anthem during revolution). Of course, homage to a strong adherence to his Rastafarian beliefs and the religious sacrament, ganja, in gems like “Kaya” or “Easy Skanking” still play as anthems which don’t glamorize the use of cannabis like rappers today do. Rather, Bob effortlessly pays homage to it in a manner that inherently demands respect on a deeper level. He adoringly and articulately conquers love in countless classics like “Is This Love” and his prowess for such material makes our strongest contemporary songwriters on the subject, Swift and Mayer, come across like struggling amateurs. I would strongly contend that “Waiting in Vain” is the greatest song ever composed and it has been covered by over 50 different artists.
That night, sitting in the green room backstage as the opening act played, I spoke at length with many members of the band. Of course, I was excited to meet the one Wailer left in the band who performed with Bob himself – long time bassist, Aston “Family Man” Barrett. Barrett joined the band soon after it’s inception and is credited with all the famous bass lines including “Concrete Jungle.” However, I was most impressed with this Grand Poobah of The Wailers, as he is the man solely responsible for engineering many of the band’s most notable albums including 1977′s monster “Exodus” (Rolling Stone Magazine’s Choice for the Greatest Album in Music History.) After speaking with his eloquent granddaughter for about 30 minutes before the Wailers hit the stage, I noticed an adorable infant asleep near her wrapped in a blanket. One hour of loud rapping style reggae seeping in through the wood paneled room and yet the baby barely moved except for an occasional comfortable sway from side to side. It was a moment to behold; reggae clearly ran hot in the blood of this family!
Clearly, legions of fans of all stripes enjoy Bob Marley and the Wailers music, but I was cognizant that many dismissed this particular concert because Bob Marley was not a live and in person participant. Au Contraire! The key to a happy life is to look at things glass half full. One can’t juxtapose The Wailers with and without an iconic legend. I liken it to my attendance at Brooklyn Bowl just two weeks ago for the Jerry Garcia band, without Jerry Garcia. One must appreciate and celebrate the melodies and lyrics for their own sake, not compare any of the presentation to a previous incarnation that included a genius formerly with the band who expressed the message to us initially.
On a Friday night at my ‘home away from home’, and the most majestic and bustling musical venue within the five boroughs, without equivocation, I stood on my familiar perch with my hand draped over the thick wooden VIP railing, behind the bowling lanes on the right of the stage, waiting in anticipation for the show to start. My feet were restless in wait and eager to dance as only one can to Bob Marley’s songs. After an improvisational jam as some instrumentalists strolled on stage, the two rotating young lead singers walked downstage as the familiar soothing roll of “Natural Mystic” lowered a light, invisible, nostalgic and comfortable cloud over the energetic crowd. On an evening where the lottery was at a record $600 million, I felt I had already cashed in my winning ticket. If I had actually won that jackpot, I’d still choose to sing and dance along with the monumental Marley melodies. What is better?
The band played classic to classic with seamless euphoric ease. The lead singers, with dreadlocks flowing as they pounced onto the stage, were obviously familiar with the nuances of Bob’s work while being careful not trying to strictly mimic or emulate him. Most notable was the effective guitar chops of the lead guitarist. If one closed one’s eyes one would be challenged to ascertain if the solos were played by Al Anderson or any of the original players from the 70′s. What I enjoyed most was the conscious decision to vary the set list. Although they played the usual hits for the largely young Bowl crowd like, “Get Up Stand Up” and “Three Little Birds”, I was happy to be surprised by the mesmerizing deeper cuts meant for a more discerning veteran like “So Much Things to Say,” “Bend Down Low,” “Punky Reggae Party,” and “Roots Rock Reggae.” When one has relished in the enjoyment that a unique band can provide for many years and umpteen listens, I believe anyone can grow tired of anything, regardless of its level of brilliance. I don’t want to hear Billy Joel’s familiar trademark standard “Piano Man” again – I rather yearn to hear him belt out “Captain Jack.” My ears avoid “Margaritaville” at all costs in preference to anything Mr. Buffett can offer, and I have had my fill of Joplin’s “Me & Bobby McGee”, as I would rather scream out to “Piece of My Heart.” I exhausted these commercial and over-played hit singles long ago. Thus, armed with an advance gifting of the set list by The Wailers tour manager, I concluded early that my required bathroom run would occur during “I Shot the Sheriff.” Of course, as I heard the crowd singing all the words from the upstairs urinal, I could close my eyes and imagine the swinging hands in the air from side to side in solidarity.
The Wailers jammed out solid for nearly an hour and a half straight with no break. Most in attendance were sweaty, disheveled, drained and perhaps under the influence – of the wondrous drug that is reggae mystic or otherwise. Naturally, any audience member would have been satiated with a complete and pleasant evening had it concluded then. However, the band came back out with a vengeance to play not one, but an unprecedented six song encore including some absolute favorites like “One Love” and “Could You Be Loved.” One suggestion of constructive criticism I would provide to the band would be in regards to their first encore: “Redemption Song” simply should never be played. Ever. By anyone. The song is too important, too meaningful, too significant, too associated with Bob himself, his message and his specific poignant delivery, that I simply covered my ears and felt compelled to respect Bob by not allowing any other version to risk soiling my brain cells.
It is simply unfair to compare The Wailers to the era of Bob Marley and the Wailers, nor should they. But these musicians, mostly flown in for touring from Jamaica, put on a very entertaining night of entertainment. I respected the professionalism on and off the stage. They put sweat and emotion on the stage and further proved it was far from a novelty act to them and their approach was proactive, serious and no holds barred. Bob’s music remains timeless, still very relevant in today’s market and thus I am confident the Wailers will remain a hardworking force in the music scene while representing the best reggae has to offer today and perhaps soon at a venue near you! In fact, after touring across some of the World, they are poised to join The Allman Brothers, Dark Star Orchestra and others at the Peach Festival in August!
At the end of his Oscar-Winning role in The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey exclaims, “I don’t believe in God, but I believe in Kaiser Soze.” I advocate, that you don’t have to believe in God, but if Jah ever lived, it was in the form of the music of Robert Nesta Marley. I was happy to be reminded for one night, of his Gospel, in the Holy Church that can be Brooklyn Bowl. For more on the King of Reggae, Kevin MacDonald’s epic Bob Marley documentary is soon to be released nationally. When? 4/20. Of course. Jah live.
-Chadbyrne R. Dickens
Setlist: Well Pleased , Natural Mystic, Lively Up Yourself, Man 2 Man, So Much Things to Say – Guiltiness, Hypocrites- Thank You Lord, Roots Rock Reggae, Is this Love, Running Away- Crazy, Sherrif, Get up stand up, War-No More Trouble
Encore: Redemption Song, Could You Be Loved, Bend Down Low-Kaya, Three Little Birds, One Love, Ex-it-us Party