One of the finest lineups in the 20-year history of the Bob Marley Day festival, this reggae marathon was dominated by the feel-good vibes of Marley contemporaries and associates as well as bands directly influenced by the master.
Annual show, held near the singer’s Feb. 6 birthday — he would have been 56 — was strengthened by an abundance of Marley mania: He recently received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and has been selected for a lifetime achievement Grammy; an artifacts exhibit is opening at the neighboring Queen Mary; and MCA has planned an exhaustive re-release program (Daily Variety, Feb. 14).
Add to that the presence of the man with the No. 1 album in the country and the result is obvious — an overpacked house that, fortunately, was able to celebrate Marley’s greatness peacefully despite constantly packed walkways, overlong bathroom lines and patience-testing security measures. Set changes were swift and kept the eight-hour-plus day moving at a good clip.
Most artists stuck to their own works in sets that ran about 40-45 minutes, and for Shaggy, that meant standing out from the silky smoothness of the other acts.
His music has the greatest connection to contemporary hit radio, but his hyped-up blend of pop and dancehall would have been much more appropriate on the first day of the fest, which was headlined by Buju Banton. Still, he offered a tribute of sorts to the genre’s past, covering “Rivers of Babylon.”
An impressive Judy Mowatt, one of Marley’s former backup singers, the I-Threes, moved from gospel and Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” to a hit parade of Marley material — “Simmer Down,” “Lively Up Yourself,” “Get Up Stand Up” and “No Woman No Cry” — demonstrating the superiority of the songs over other reggae material and her own marvelous vocal skills.
Less impressive was her I-Three mate Marcia Griffiths, whose soprano evokes memories of early ’60s pop girl groups. She, too, turned to the Marley songbook for “Three Little Birds” and “Iron Lion Zion” before running through her hookie hit “The Electric Slide,” complete with volunteer dancers from the audience.
Culture, one of Jamaica’s greatest vocal groups and the rare unit that holds a candle to the triumvirate of Marley, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, drew on American soul riffs and jazz (Paul Desmond’s “Take Five,” for example) before easing into blissful roots reggae groove. Led by Joseph Hill, the band reached back to their 25-year-old number “I’m Not Ashamed” from the landmark album “Two Sevens Clash” before jumping into a handful of ganja tunes that closed with a stirring reading of Tosh’s “Legalize It.”
Using American soul music is nothing new for reggae, and Toots Hibbert, who once recorded a effervescent album of soul covers, continues to lean on the styles of Memphis and South for his oldies-driven program. “Pressure Drop,” “Funky Kingston” and a version of the Otis Redding hit ballad “Dreams to Remember” were highlights of the charismatic singer’s 45 minutes. He’s the one singer whose star deserves to be considerably brighter.
Grammy nominees Wailing Souls played the day’s smoothest grooves, tapping into the Marley spirit through songs such as “Equality.” Marley’s son Ky-mani was a significant disappointment; his songs lack vision, his diction lacks specificity, and his stage presence pales in comparison to that of his brother Ziggy. His lone strength is covering his father’s material; otherwise, it’s back to the drawing board.