The Maytals have stood in the front line of reggae pioneers since 1961, when Toots Hibbert’s vocal group joined forces with the musicians of the Skatelites and legendary Studio One producer Coxsone Dodd. Fifty years later, Hibbert is one of a small number of the music’s original practitioners left standing, and he closed the Hollywood Bowl’s “Legends Of Reggae” night with a vital, thrilling performance that refused to stay in one place for long.
With five decades to build a repertoire. Hibbert had a wide range of music to choose from in constructing his set list, and the songs in his hour-long show revealed a multitude of influences from outside of Kingston. Piano-driven gospel crescendos, funk riffs powered by sub-zero bass lines, Stax soulfulness, the hypnotic power of African pop, and heavy guitar rock all figured in a set that still never sounded out of place at a reggae festival. Proving he’s not afraid to cop a good melody wherever he finds one, he even did a crowd-pleasing cover of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” that actually kind of worked.
When they reached back to the ska hits in their sixties catalog, they exhibited a truly rare groove, a kind of suspended animation that you only find in the very best reggae players, where everything SOUNDS tight and energetic but FEELS really relaxed and loose. Lots of rock bands took a shot at it in the mid-seventies but always failed to get the balance right (“D’yer Mak’er” anyone?). The primary innovation of the English groups that popularized second-wave ska around 1979 (Specials, Madness, Beat, Selecter, Bad Manners et al) was to play the music without relaxing, which made for a properly charged-up atmosphere to compete with punk.
But it is very different hearing “Monkey Man” – which I first heard as a Specials cover – as played by its creator. It’s still a rave-up, but there’s something about playing very insistently at a slow tempo that takes the edge right off. It’s like watching a movie scene in slow motion, kind of psychedelic. This particular skill at keeping it hard and slow simultaneously is an increasingly rare find, and the Maytals’ mastery of the form made it the most satisfying live reggae show I’ve ever witnessed.
Ziggy Marley displayed a different, newer-school mastery during his set. Light-handed and mostly up-tempo, with many opportunities for singalong choruses, his songs seem tailor-made for an outdoor festival environment, whether it be for a reggae crowd, a hippie crowd, a world-music crowd (I last saw him as a headliner on Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD Festival in 1994, also a fine show) or whatever. It was a highly professional display by a band of meticulous players, with moments of raw, spontaneous passion. He dipped into his famous father’s catalog only once, for a luminous and ecstatically-received “Could You Be Loved.”