More Expecations


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.

Ready for the Unexpected?

Sometimes you hear something and you’re just not ready for it. Maybe it’s too new to you, maybe you’re really into something else at the time. But you’ll love it eventually.

I had been loving the full band teamwork on the album Marcus Garvey by Burning Spear. Everybody contributes their part and the whole thing comes together sounding so organic and earthy. So I went of to Rhino Records in Westwood (this was about 1990) in search of more perfect reggae. Of course I could get more Burning Spear, but I’m always looking for something else, too.

Here are a couple of songs to listen to before we move on:
1. Marcus Garvey – a strident, political song
2. Live Good – a sweeter song about living right

As I browsed through the reggae section, an employee asked if I needed any help. I explained my quest to the kid (he must’ve been 20 to my 23) and he suggested: Lee “Scratch” Perry – Scratch Attack (2 albums on one cd, Scratch and Company Chapter One and Blackboard Jungle Dub, with some “enhancement” by Brad Osbourne, who put this collection out in 1988). Not really along the lines of what I was looking for, but his latest favorite reggae album.

I could sample it at a listening station. A reggae version of ‘garage’ came to mind. Not only is it much looser in vision than Burning Spear (being based on singles by different artists, that makes sense, but also, Perry is just very open to whatever sounds groovy), but I think Perry’s purposeful, heavy use of the phaser, causing some very groovy aural degradation, also made that term come to mind. There are a lot more rough edges overall (even the title of the first song is misspelled: Stratch the Dub Organizer), and more playfulness. There’s even a dub version of Pop Goes the Weasel (Pop Goes the Dread Dub). To introduce the 2nd part of Blackboard Jungle, Lee Perry says, “Welcome to Blackboard Jungle, Part 2,” then gives 2 growly roars, “Rrrrrrrr, Hhrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.”

At the time, I knew I was going to like it, but I really had my heart set on something more like the Burning Spear. So I passed on it, but came back a couple weeks later to pick it up. Now that misspelled opening track makes me think of a grand entrance through gates to a completely different land. In fact, both albums have been favorites now for over 20 years.

Here are a few of the Lee Perry songs:

Extra points if anyone can tell me what the woman says at the end of the intro to Rubba, Rubba Words, just before the music comes in (10-12 seconds in).