Friday, June 17, 2011

Wind In His Sails: Freddie McGregor Live Review

Reggae veteran Freddie McGregor has a lot to smile about. His three sons, Daniel a.k.a. "Chino," Stephen a.k.a "Di Genius" and Kemar "Flava" McGregor are all finding success in the music business like their pops. And beaming Freddie was on a foggy Wednesday June 15 in San Francisco as he took stage with the Millennium Band and blazed through a 90 minute set.

The elder McGregor has earned Jamaica's Order of Distinction title as well as a global following for his music.  He began recording in the ska music era of the 1960s and released his first album, Bobby Babylon, in 1979. He's been recording and performing live ever since and is considered one of Jamaica's most esteemed vocalists , in a league with greats like Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown and Bob Marley.

McGregor's appearance at San Francisco's Rockit Room, it was his first visit to the city in more than a decade. And though his locks are thinning and gray, he's lost little of his honeyed vocal tone or joyful stage demeanor .The Millennium Band provided capable support via dual guitars, keys, drum and bass complimented by two fantastic back-up vocalists. McGregor was dressed casually in blue denim, a white collared shirt and gold chain and looked very much the wise captain his ship.

When he launched in to the Studio One classic "Africa Here I Come" it felt like the start of a special evening. Hits were reeled off immediately, including many of his biggest '80s and 90s singles: "To Be Poor Is A Crime," "Prophecy," "Push Come To Shove," "Stop Loving You" as well as his label's name sake, "Big Ship." These songs emphasized that in addition to his own production, Freddie has worked with nearly every great producer living and dead, from Coxsone Dodd, Linval Thompson and King Jammy to Steelie and Clevie. That experienced translated into a versatile and continually melodious performance.

Freddie transitioned into a Studio One rocksteady showcase featuring covers of Alton Ellis' "Let Him Try" Dobby Dobson's "Loving Pauper" and McGregor's own "Born A Winner" (a response to Derrick Harriot's earlier hit "The Loser." Freddie also paid due tribute to his dear departed friend Dennis Brown with covers of Brown's  "Here I Come" and "Revolution;" which the audience devoured. Freddie's signature vocal ad-libs ("Whoa-now," "Oh Lord") are his stock and trade, a remnant of Jamaica's R&B and vocal harmony traditions.

The set continued with dancehall-inspired numbers "You Give Me Fever" (a Horace Andy tune pasted on the Punnany riddim) and "Dont Hurt My Feelings" – but it wasn't until McGregor drew for the tuneful "Key To The City" that he received resounding calls for a "reeeeewind" from the audience. Later he returned to his Studio One roots with "Wine of Violence," "Undying Love" and "Bobby Babylon" (see video below).

Scattered through the audience were some of SF's most prominent sound system DJs including Jah Warrior Shelter's Irie Dole and Jah Yzer, selectors Billie Culture and Lud Dub and members of Mountain Lion sound, all of whom were in awe of the legend.

Freddie acknowledged that it had been a long time since he had performed in San Francisco and proceeded to field a few audience requests such as early hit "Revolutionist," "Rastaman Camp" and the excellent "Seek And You Will Find."

Proving that he has more stamina than many younger artists, McGregor upped the pace toward his set's end with the ska classic "Carry Go Bring Come." What can you say about a singer who effortlessly spans 50-plus years of Jamaican music in an evening while maintaining poise, tone and, most importantly, the audience's attention? That's Freddie, piloting his big ship onward.