Friday, January 14, 2011

Concert Review: Anthony B Is Ready For Bigger Things

"Anthony B has to be one of the ten best living reggae artists," I remarked to a friend as the Jamaican singjay launched into "God Above Everything," one of his signature tunes. Since emerging in 1996, Keith Anthony Blair, better known as Anthony B has risen to the top of the touring reggae circuit, playing sold out shows and festivals across North America, Europe and other continents.

His performance January 12 at San Francisco's the Independent did not disappoint. Bounding two and fro across the stage like a gymnast, Blair ran through his catalog of hits, re-interpreting many of them in different formats, and touched on disparate music styles from U2-style arena rock to soul ballads and even country. In fact, if if his performance suffered from anything it was too much universalism; Blair made certain to appeal to reggae newbies, crossover fans and those seeking an interactive performance "experience." Gripes aside, he made it all look easy.

Situated in the DJ booth in the balcony, rare Jamaican 45 specialist Revival Sound System (pictured right) from KUSF's Wake The Town opened the show. Highlights from his selection included 7" versions of Alton Ellis's "Let Him Try" on Studio One, Prince Buster's cover of the Beatles "Hey Jude," plus a rare Winston Francis cover of Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang" and early Bob Marley tunes. [Here's a video of Revival Sound in action.]

Given that the crowd would mostly be modern reggae fans it was a risk for the venue to book Revival for the opening slot. But the crowd didn't seem to miss the incessant Stone Love horn samples that normally blast over the new roots and dancehall riddims at most reggae events. Rather, the audience sang along quite loudly to 'Hey Jude."

But then it was showtime. Anthony B strode on stage, his dreads wrapped Bobo Ashanti-style in a clean white turban, topped off with a suit jacket and vest, black jeans and polished dress shoes. He opened with "Hurt The Heart (But You Can't Hurt My Soul)" from his 1996 album So Many Things accented by agile leg kicks worthy of a champion hurdler. Next was fan favorite, "Almighty God" (on the famous Studio One riddim "Love Me Forever") followed by "God Above Everything" and a nice minor-key tune, "Ain't No Stopping Us," which rode the Black Roses / Revolution riddim nicely.

There comes a point about six songs into an Anthony B show where you realize that he's had at least one recognizable if not anthemic hit every year -- usually more than one. That longevity and quality control has helped elevate his profile among longtime reggae connoisseurs, but his connection with crowds equally adds to his popularity.

"Give it up for roots and culture, give it up for consciousness," Blair implored about midway though his set, receiving an appropriately enthusiastic response from the wall-to-wall packed audience. From there he had the crowd captivated: Swinging arms left-to-right on command, joining him in a sing-a-long to the Bill Withers' nugget "Lean On Me" and shouting approval to his rub-a-dub dance moves on the hit "Waan Back" (his biggest selling song on iTunes). About halfway through his set, Blair shifted from hits to new material from his most recent album Rasta Love . The best of the batch was a ballad that began with a the guitar riff from Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry" and lead into a new roots one-drop beat. At the tail end of the number Blair half-heartedly tried to get the crowd to sing "Red Red Wine" over the riddim but they weren't going there.

The only other hitches came in the aforementioned U2-style stadium rock track and Blair's rework of John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Road," in which "California" replaces "West Virginia" in the lyrics and "mountain mama" is swapped for "marijuana."  The moment was clever but trite. Not so his impassioned rendition of recent single "Sweet Jamaica", "Give Praises" and early career hit "Raid Di Barn" presented for the encore.

Though he didn't fail his core audience, Blair seemed to be pining for bigger things. With American reggae-rock acts Rebulution, Iration and SOJA outselling Jamaican artists by a wide margin in the US, who could blame Blair for at least courting those fans?

Anthony B's talent seems as limitless as his hits and despite a few moments that teetered on the edge of rock cliché, it's hard to disdain an artist that breaks the music down do deliver truisms such as "Don't ever look outside of yourself for answers," and "Love yourself, you made it!" So did Anthony B.