Monday, August 02, 2010

Checking It Live

It has been a very busy summer for live reggae shows in the Bay Area. From festivals to intimate shows, live reggae events have been frequent and plentiful. The last two weeks alone saw Tarrus Riley with the Dean Fraser band, Warrior King and Sweden's Million Stylez all pass through the North, East and South Bay Area. Mr. Riley had come straight from Jamaica's Sumfest concert to California, performing in Berkeley at Shattuck Downlow and then at the tiny 200-capacity Santa Cruz venue Moe's Alley. What a ting! More concerts beckoned, including Jamaica's most prolific recording duo.

I had been anticipating Sly & Robbie's rare solo appearance in San Francisco for almost two months. The Riddim Twins were booked for two nights at upscale Fillmore District jazz club Yoshi's. It was an appropriate spot for a duo that has always represented musical innovation and instrumental virtuosity, the kind that demands a proper sound system and elegant venue.

At 11 p.m. out strode drummer Sly Dunbar, bassist Robbie Shakespeare, guitarist Darryl Thompson, keyboardists Franklyn "Bubbler" Waul and Steven "Lenky" Marsden, along with trombonist Nambo Robinson -- veterans all. Nambo played equally compelling roles as hype man, singer and soloist throughout the night.

Opener number the Studio One-era rocksteady instrumental "Rockfort Rock" would be one of only a few "straight" reggae songs the band would play. The rest of the evening was given over to the kind of experimentation, extreme dubbing and multi-genre wildness that only Sly & Robbie could dream up. It was definitely "prog" dub -- meaning progressive, avant-garde Jamaican music. Quite an experience.

Looking like an undertaker/bassist, Robbie commanded the audiences attention with quick fingering on his bass's fretboard. Later on in the show, he took the mic to cover Dawn Penn's famous "You Don't Love Me (No No No)," using one hand on bass and the other cupping his ear to keep in tune. But after "Rockfort Rock" the band transitioned into electro-reggae original "Hot Your Hot" and straight into another Studio One jam "Real Rock."

This is where things got interesting.

"Real Rock" started out as a rocksteady jam before changing tempo and stripping down into a baroque classical sing-a-long with Nambo operatically engaging the audience. He eventually wound the song into "Rich Girl," the Riddim Twins' ragga-by-way-of-Fiddler On The Roof tune. The song changed again into to a feverish steppers dub piece, which, lead by Sly, was further effected and rhythmically evolved into a type of Can-style prog rock jam. Some in the crowd were scratching their heads but the jam was not unlike some of their heady dub-electronic experiments with producer Howie B.

Nambo (pictured left) would trade his 'bone for the mic on "Stallag," the Techniques label riddim, where Mr. Robinson did a great b impression. Surprisingly, this rub-a-dub era song was followed by another audience sing-a-long to Bob Marley's "Rastaman Chant," which is still one of the most powerful Niyahbinghi spirituals ever voiced. Other familiar songs such as Black Uhuru's "Shine Eye Gal," Ini Kamoze's "World of Music" and Leroy Smart's "Ballistic Affair" (see video below) were duly transformed from reggae into other forms. Hearing these songs in succession gave substance to the mighty catalog of hits built on Sly & Robbie rhythms.

Steven Lenky Marsden (pictured left), creator of the Diwali dancehall riddim added a techno flair to "Ballistic Affair" as he and the band turned Smart's lament about 1970s Kingston violence into a futuristic rave dance tune. It was jaw-dropping evidence that this band could literally play any style, from foundation Jamaican reggae through heavy metal, prog and techno.

Late in the set, Kingston vocalist Peter G made a cameo. The dreadlocked singer wasted no time in establishing his "lover man" credentials covering Cocoa Tea's "Tune In/Missing You" and Gregory Isaacs' "Night Nurse." The night ended with Dennis Brown's "Revolution" and signature instrumental "Call A Taxi." The band and crowd both ran out of steam and hour and half into the set. The band had just finished weeks on the road at various US reggae festivals and looked ready to get some deserved rest. The crowd had danced through every twist and turn of the beat.

Overall, the night was a triumph of creativity and a showcase of Sly & Robbie's esoteric, eccentric and otherworldly playing. The audience seemed sated knowing they had witnessed a historic duo at their pinnacle.