I love Toots & the Maytals. Toots is fantastic the way he mixes plenty of gospel, soul and funk into his reggae. Here, take a listen to this:
But I didn’t always see it that way. Once, some friends and I walked out on a Toots concert! I know, today I can hardly believe it myself. You see, we were there for Joe Higgs. It was 1989 and we didn’t know Toots from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. OK, I think we could’ve told you which one wasn’t the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but still. A friend (hi, Jorn!) had come across a new album called Family by this guy, Joe Higgs, who was also new to us. We really loved his honest and soulful voice. It carried the album (even if that album suffered from a certain bit of 80s-ishness). So when we heard about the show, we jumped at the chance to go.
Here are a couple of tunes from Family, and his best album, Life of Contradiction:
His singing carried his concert, too. His band was merely passable, kind of reggae-by-numbers, but he could sing like nobody. (It was this short man who wrote Steppin’ Razor, the song Peter Tosh covered admirably, but Tosh was tall and the line, “don’t you watch my size, I’m dangerous,” was always a stretch with him singing it. But we didn’t know anything about that yet, either.) Anyway, we loved his performance. One thing you may find when you branch out into “world” music is a certain earthiness, an honesty about just making good music with no artifice. No flash, no marketing, no attitude, no big public image. Well, compared to U2 anyway, and we still loved U2 (and some of it can be slick, but I’m not talking about that stuff). OK, it’s like finding the complete opposite of the hair metal bands of the late 80s. Joe Higgs, though reggae isn’t always mentioned in the same breath as “world” music, had that earthy expression in spades.
So when Toots & the Maytals came on, we weren’t ready for Toots’ brand of showmanship. Toots works hard to involve the crowd. But we didn’t need any urging to be involved, so it came off to us as completely unnecessary, more of a distraction. We thought the music should speak for itself, just like it did for Joe Higgs. The thing that chafed most was their inability to end songs. There were big hits and lots of climactic strumming, followed by more big hits, and maybe some more climactic strumming: BAM… BAM… BAMBAMBAMBAMstrummmmmmmmmmmmmm (for 10 more seconds), then one more big BAM. Or they might repeat the whole bamming and strumming. It surprised us and struck us as freakish allegiance to some ideal of how to end a song with a bang. Every song had to end with a bang. I have their excellent live album, it does a little of that, but not like we heard that night. We didn’t need to hear it anymore and left, maybe a little more than halfway through.
Here’s an example from the live album of Toots working the crowd. This is a famous song, 54-46 (Was My Number), and one where the breaks in the song where he exhorts the band and/or the crowd (“give it to me one time” Bam, “give it to me two times” Bam Bam, etc.) have been a part of the song from the beginning. It’s pretty fun and not as tiresome as what we experienced:
Later I would get to know and love Toots & the Maytals. Now I understand and I’m familiar with his R&B showmanship. I have seen him in concert a couple of times and loved it, well, he still tries too hard to get the crowd to sing along. He has a better voice than the crowd and I came to him sing, but I know that he is basically purveying a joyous event and doing his best to get everybody participating.
Now, to me they are both in the stratosphere of my appreciation. Just like Burning Spear and Lee Perry from the previous post, don’t ask me to pick favorites between them, they are all my favorites.