In an odd way, the most refreshing aspect of the Bowl’s world music festival’s sixth reggae night was what was missing: almost any mention of Bob Marley. Nothing against the late bard of Kingston mind you, but his oversized presence as reggae’s pioneer, poet, prophet and martyr can eclipse the Jamaican music’s deep and rich traditions. Sunday night, two of Marley’s contemporaries — Burning Spear and the recently reunited Wailing Souls — and the genre’s pre-eminent rhythm section and producers, Sly and Robbie, showed “Hollywood and the neighboring communities” (as Winston “Pipe” Matthews, the Wailing Souls lead singer described the sold-out aud) the range of emotions and sounds that drew rock fans to roots reggae in the ’70s and ’80s.
The reconstituted Wailing Souls opened the show, and while their voices are a little rougher around the edges than they were 20 years ago, they picked up right where they left off. Singing their distinctive, four-part harmonies as they ambled on the stage, Wailing Souls embody the lighter side of reggae, with an emphasis more on the soul than the wail. Songs such as “Things & Time” and “Jah Jah Give Us Life” bring the good word of a benevolent Jah, set to bouncy rhythms, punchy horns and pleading harmonies. Even “War” is less an antiwar jeremiad than a crooned prayer for peace.
It would be hard to overestimate the influence of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespere; over the past 30 years they have played on and produced more than 50,000 tracks working with artists from Gregory Isaacs to Bob Dylan, Peter Tosh to No Doubt. Their set at the Bowl was as impressive as their resume: The rhythms they built were supple yet thunderous, the playing so deep they could bend space and time to their needs.
Horace Andy was scheduled to perform with Sly and Robbie but was unable to enter the country due to visa problems. Another singer, Cherine Anderson, nearly stole the show. The Jamaican beauty is another in the long line of fine vocalists who have recorded for the Taxi label; her sweet yet authoritative voice lends a maternal comfort to Marley’s “Redemption Song,” her recently recorded “Kingston State of Mind” and the gospel standard “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
Burning Spear closed the show with some old-fashioned Rastafarian fire and brimstone. His once pure voice raspy and stern, Winston Rodney sounds like a Caribbean Willie Nelson. But as he warms up, Rodney starts to resemble an Old Testament preacher: “Humble yourself” and remember, you reject Jah at your peril.
It’s enthralling to be in the presence of such undiluted belief, but to a nonbeliever, it can turn tiring and a little repetitive, a situation not helped by the stiff and unimaginative band.