Back in times

Garry Steckles takes stock after a star-studded season of reggae performances in London

045_Riddem118Ernest Ranglin. Photograph by Adrian Boot

I’ve had the good fortune to see a lot of live reggae over the decades — and getting there has often been half the fun. Particularly when it involved complex travel arrangements in which Jamaica figured prominently, a virtual guarantee of unplanned and memorable diversions.

Getting there was a bit less amusing in my most recent bout of reggae concert-going. It took place in London, a city of more than eight million people, most of whom seemed intent on either coming or going on exactly the same route as myself, and usually on the same bus or underground train.

It was frustrating, at best, scary at worst — standing in a jam-packed train that had jerked to a full stop somewhere under London, with no sign of a station fore or aft — but the end results were worth every hassle and then some. The absolute highlights: Bob and Marcia singing “Young, Gifted, and Black”, Ernest Ranglin playing “Linstead Market”, and Tyrone Downie playing one of the most recognisable and beloved keyboard riffs in the history of popular music. I get goosebumps just writing about it all.

The all-star supporting cast: Jimmy Cliff, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Dennis Bovell and the latest version of his legendary Dub Band, Lloyd Parkes and the latest version of his equally legendary We the People band, Max Romeo, Sly and Robbie, Derrick Morgan, the Mad Professor, and the Gaylads. That list, for the benefit of readers who might not be familiar with the story of reggae music, includes three of the most revered bass players in the history of the bass-driven genre: Bovell, Parkes, and Robbie Shakespeare.

So why the goosebumps?

Let’s start with Bob and Marcia. Bob is Bob Andy, Marcia is Marcia Griffiths, and they’ve both had distinguished solo careers — and Marcia, of course, was a member of the I-Threes, the backup trio for Bob Marley and the Wailers for much of the 1970s. But like countless thousands of reggae fans, I can’t see or hear either of them without conjuring up memories of their version of the Nina Simone anthem, one of the songs that helped define an explosive era in which the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War were two of the most important issues in the Western world.

“Young, Gifted, and Black”, which soared to number five in the British pop charts in 1970, has always been one of my all-time favourite reggae songs, and when Bob Andy told a largely Jamaican audience at a major concert at London’s O2Indigo venue that he was about to bring a surprise guest on stage, and that doing so was a rare and very special occasion for him, just about everyone in the hall knew that he could only be talking about one person. Minutes later, Bob and Marcia were treating us to a song most of us never thought we’d get to see and hear performed live again. The moment was made even more special by the fact that they were backed by We the People.

Then there was Ernest Ranglin, probably the finest Jamaican guitarist of them all. The man who helped invent ska. A master of jazz as well as a reggae pioneer. I’d been wanting to see him on stage for decades, but for one reason or another had never been in the right place at the right time. So, despite work commitments that prevented me from getting anywhere near the venue within two hours of the advertised start of a concert featuring a Jamaican legends band of Ranglin, Downie, and Sly and Robbie, I made the same tortured trek back to the same O2Indigo venue.

This being a Jamaican occasion, I felt confident it would start at least an hour late, probably more, and that I wouldn’t miss much. I was still confident when I walked into the hall and saw, to my delight, the great man himself on stage and in full swing, and doing remarkable things with one of Jamaica’s most famed traditional songs, “Linstead Market”. “Perfect timing,” I told myself. “They must have just started playing.” No such luck. I quickly discovered that the four legends had been on stage for about an hour and a half, and I’d arrived just in time for the final three or four numbers.

I was disappointed, to put it mildly, but just being in the same hall as Ranglin made it all worthwhile. As he played, it quickly became apparent that, at the age of eighty, he’s lost none of the magic that has endeared him to ska, reggae, and jazz fans around the world.

Then it was Tyrone Downie’s turn to take us back to one of the most memorable moments in the history of reggae music — no, make that popular music of any genre: the majestic, soaring organ intro to “No Woman No Cry”, the song that Bob Marley and the Wailers, with Tyrone on keyboards, recorded live at London’s Lyceum Theatre in July 1975, and which established Marley as a performer of global stature. More goosebumps, and when Tyrone segued into a keyboard rendition of the equally iconic opening notes of “Redemption Song”, virtually the entire audience was instantly singing along.

Three moments of sheer, unadulterated reggae bliss, any one of them enough to make my travel woes worthwhile, and then some. There were plenty of other special moments, too: Jimmy Cliff, looking and sounding as good as ever at the age of sixty-six; Max Romeo singing “War in a Babylon” and a raft of other classics; Dennis Bovell’s thundering bass literally shaking the extremely solid floors of the Old Billingsgate Market on the banks of the River Thames; Linton Kwesi Johnson’s incendiary dub poetry; the Gaylads’ silky-smooth reggae and rocksteady ballads; Derrick Morgan, dressed to the nines, singing up a storm and still every inch a star bwoy at seventy-two; the Mad Professor’s spacy, ultra-heavy dub; and Sly and Robbie, bringing back so many memories, lingering on stage and showing what drum and bass is all about in the hands of two masters. It didn’t hurt that most of the shows I caught were emceed by Martin “Mandingo” Williams, who introduced reggae’s greats with just the right blend of rah-rah-rah, roots vibes, and knowledgeable, concise background info on why they were so special. More about him in a future column.

And, to make a hectic few weeks’ of reggae concert-going in London even more authentically Jamaican, there was the inevitable no-show: I guess I’ll have to catch up with Lee “Scratch” Perry some other time.