Reggae on the River 2014: 30th Anniversary review
Reggae on the River is growing into adulthood, with this year heralding the 30th Anniversary of the landmark reggae festival. What started in 1983 as a benefit to rebuild the then-recently burned Mateel Community Center has grown into full maturity, and is an event that continues to support the community at large through local fire departments, schools and other non-profit organizations. As one of the biggest gatherings for the reggae community at large, the festival continues to be one of the great meeting grounds for the roots and culture family new and old. An easy and familiar presence is prevalent everywhere you go at “Reggae” (the festival now so often called just “Reggae”), with some have been coming for 10, 20, 30 years now, making the annual journey back to the banks of this beautiful river. The feeling of community at Reggae pervades, radiating from the longtime locals, to those that come from the farthest reaches to be here: “the Home that Reggae built” is home to all.
Danny Ladwa and Gaudi
For two years running, Reggae’s festivities have been kicking off on Thursday nights, with a limited number of tickets released for the early-comers. Friday nights used to kick-off Reggae with reggae movies, retrospective photo shows of past Reggae on the Rivers; and in later years, one or two live bands, the likes of Lost-at-Last and Transglobal Underground. Now with Reggae extending over the course of four days, this festival stretches like no other stateside reggae/world festival, offering you a true full-immersion reggae getaway.
Michael Rose and Gaudi
Reggae’s Thursday brought a mix of deejay sets and live offerings. After Reggae’s traditional Pomo opening ceremony, Tchiya Amet blessed the fledgling crowd with a live acoustic set. Many top-ranking singers and deejays rocked the mic for Reggae’s early-comers: Jaahdan Blackkamoore, Los Rakas, Ishi Dube, Paapa Wastik, Winstrong, Bobby Hustle, Jade Steel, Lacy Redhead and more, led the sounds from the 1’s and 2’s. Later in the night, with the crowd building strongly in, The Courtney John Project band properly whomped the crowd with their electronica-infused reggae and dub. Courtney John delivers with a voice as smooth as ever, and making the project pulse is the production from “The Wizard,” a.k.a.- Anastasia Hammond (Beres Hammond’s daughter). She brought electric energy to the stage, rocking hard with her blend of EDM in the mix, and indeed fulfilled the sound of (the) Future their latest release live. CJP helped provide a nice seismic start to Reggae.
Gaudi continued to heighten the levels in the dub session, with his own productions which he live-dubs, mixing deftly on knobs and faders, bringing in sirens, washing delays, and his own steady streams of chats and vocalizations. His partner through the first 90 minutes was U.K. beat-boxing champion, Danny Ladwa, who transitioned from Gaudi’s own beats seamlessly into a solo beat-box rocking that had the crowd jumping in excitement and wonder at his rendition of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.” The early word was that Gaudi’s rehearsals had him excited for what he felt was going to be one of his best sets ever. Once Michael Rose took the stage with him for Rose’s premier U.S. dancehall set, it was clear we were witnessing something special. Rose delivered his biggest tunes, voiced over Gaudi’s own tracks (including Rose’s track “Put Your Guns Down,” which Gaudi produced on In Between Times) — all through the swirling dub aesthetic Gaudi is known for, with Michael rocking, smiling and laughing through it all.
Nambo Robinson Robbie Shakespeare
Reggae presents the brightest stars, from living legends, to those up-and-coming and each and every performer rises to the occasion at The River. Reggae originators and legends Jimmy Cliff, Sly and Robbie, Third World, Michael Rose, Israel Vibration, and Mutabaruka all delivered performances that duly reflected their heavyweight statuses. Nothing beats hearing some of the music’s sole architects, Sly and Robbie (a.k.a. “The Riddim Twins,” the most-recorded drum and bass duo of all time), drop so many classic riddims (many of which they helped to create), every one with lock-step tightness and ease, playing the reggae groove like few others. The space that Sly and Robbie create when dubbing is a slice of musical heaven. Add in the legendary Bob Marley/Dennis Brown/Jimmy Cliff (and many more) trombonist Nambo Robinson leading a small set of his own, and helping drive the Taxi Gang; the golden voice of U.K.-based lover’s rock lasting sensation Bitty McLean delivering his hits like “The Real Thing”; and the signature Black Uhuru anthems from the Waterhouse-wailing Michael Rose, and you have more musical nirvana as delivered by the article dons. Later, Gentleman kept the vibes close with the fans, as he jumped off the stage and then climbed into the crowd for an intimate gather-round-and-sing of “Dem Gone” and “Superior” with the audience.
Bitty McLean Gentleman gets up-close and personal
Packing a similarly heavy musical punch of superlative tightness was Skool Band, backing Mutabaruka; the band deftly fulfilled their “dub” part of Mutabaruka’s dub-poetry in a way that made you float between the beats of the music, and yet delivered with dread, heavy as lead. Muta sang with perfect warmth and humor, countering the serious nature of his songs that dealt with everything from processed food “Junk Food” to reflections of our own humanity (or lack thereof) “The Monkey”. He also gave a heartfelt rendering of a tribute poem to Lucky Dube, to the Reggae crowd that had through the years had so loved Lucky, on that very day that Lucky would have turned 50.
Reggae music’s first superstar, Jimmy Cliff, left us with no doubt as to who may hold the crown as reggae’s reigning king. From “Many Rivers to Cross” through “Vietnam/Afghanistan” to “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” Cliff reminds us of the clear and direct power that reggae can have to move hearts and open minds. Cliff still performs and moves with the exuberance of a young adult, while powering every pitch and lyric like the unwavering master that he is. Jimmy is one of those performers who is always at the top of his game, and I couldn’t help but wonder if his sets are getting stronger as he grows older.
Cat Coore, Richard Daley and A.J. Brown of Third World
Who would have guessed that original Reggae Ambassadors, Third World, would have sounded stronger than ever, with the passing of lead singer Bunny Rugs in February. Third World played with renewed vigor, blending electronic breaks into their set, with their extended version of “96 Degrees,” and into “Rhythm of Life” with a long whole-band percussion break. The entire venue was pulsing with the sounds of reggae’s most enduring band, with A.J. Brown, a great vocalist in his own right, lovingly and confidently keeping the torch lit for Bunny Rugs and Third World.
Alpha Blondy in the KMUD press tent
Speaking of reggae ambassadors, the African Lion Alpha Blondy also rose to Reggae’s occasion, making his own musical cry for peace with the heart and urgency that is, in part, his signature. Alpha helped create such a moment of audience focus and unity for peace, that if even a small ray of that could shine forth from Reggae, the world could be a brighter place.
And speaking of 96 (and hotter) degrees, this year’s daytime temperatures hovered around 105, hotly and lazily prompting many Reggae-Ites to stay near to camp, hydrating and fanning off under the comfort of camp shade until things cooled slightly in the later afternoon. Once again, KMUD-91.1FM was live-broadcasting the show across the airwaves, including media sessions from the press tent, letting The Massive hear not only the music, but also first-hand reasonings from the artists. Despite not being in the concert bowl full-time, we could still be tied to the musical runnings and reasonings through the simulcast.
New heights were reached for energetic regional favorites Indubious, with brothers “Evton B” and “Skip Wicked” Burton, and drummie Matt Wells, personally reflecting the generational span that Reggae on the River represents: they used to come to the festival as young fans, and had reggae awakenings here (like so many of us returning Reggae-Ites). On the vanguard of the modern roots “Reggae Revival” is Jah-9, who walked the stage with confidence and fire, radiating conscious roots with conviction. With the solid backing from the I-Kronik band, she ran selections from her album New Name. Earlier in the festival, more women running the stage with aplomb were Zili Misik, the diverse all-woman band who fused musical elements including reggae, Afro-Latin rhythms and Brazilian beats. Further showcasing the diversity of Reggae’s lineup, and reflecting the greater diversity of reggae’s own diaspora, was the 11-piece Chilean band Abya Yala. True to the sound of the best South American reggae, they brought a regal horn section together with a rock-solid rhythm section, met with inspired singing and harmonies. Reggae also saw the debut performance of Meta and the Cornerstones, a band showcasing a melting pot of musicians, fronted by the Senegalese singer Meta, whose soulful and passionate delivery is wrought with conviction. His powerful and unique voice uplifted the early afternoon Reggae crowd.