I attended my first reggae concert in 1980. Peter Tosh, one of the founders of the Wailers along with Bob Marley, was playing an outdoor concert at what was then The Ontario Place Forum in Toronto, Ontario. In those days it was simply a covered stage surrounded by maybe twenty to thirty rows of seats, and grassy hillside where you could park your butt on a blanket and sit under the stars on a summer's night listening to music. Of course if it rained and you were on the hillside you were soaked, but most people were willing to take that chance as the admission charge was only two bucks and you had the chance to see world class acts like Peter Tosh.
On this overcast and muggy night, where showers threatened but never fell, Peter performed his magic on stage wreathed in an ever increasing haze of smoke generated both by his habit of hitting the pipe and the audience's enthusiastic contributions. Tosh had a brief moment of popular recognition in the late seventies when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards hooked up with him to perform "Don't Look Back", but aside from that, his material was much more controversial then his old band mate's and he never really achieved the same popular acclaim. However, while Marley's death was universally mourned, when Tosh was gunned down in his home in an apparent botched robbery in 1987, it seemed to me that a great deal of the political spirit went out of reggae.
That's probably a false impression I know, but with both Tosh's and Marley's death it seemed like some of the energy had been sucked out of the music and I began to lose interest in the genre. Too much of what I was hearing was starting to sound like mindless bass dubs, only good for grinding your brain into submission. So, it's only been recently that I've even started checking out reggae again. It was sometime earlier this year that I began to run across pictures of Michael Franti & Spearhead, and there was something about the attitude projected by them that made me pay attention. Like Tosh they had that hint of danger about them, a spark of something provocative, that made me want to listen to their music. So when the opportunity arose to review their most recent release, All Rebel Rockers on Anti Records, I took it.
You know what, sometimes appearances aren't deceiving. These guys not only delivered on the promise of their picture, they actually exceeded it in some ways. Musically they proved to be wonderfully divers as they are able to do everything from the heavy overdubs of dance hall to soulful acoustic numbers. Their cover of John Hiatt's "Have A Little Faith" that closes All Rebel Rockers is every bit as good as the original, and even in some ways better. Of course, it probably didn't hurt matters that they recorded disc in Kingston, Jamaica with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare heading up the producing team.Sly & Robbie were the rhythm section of choice for many reggae bands including Peter Tosh and Black Uhuru, until they turned their hand to producing full time and their client list has expanded to include folk like Bob Dylan.
While the opening track, "Rude Boys Back In Town", is pretty much your standard dance hall song, it makes for a good intro to the disc as it establishes the groove. Instead of being reliant on bass, like so much of the stuff I remember hearing in the 1980s, it has a cleaner sound that doesn't make you feel like you're being beaten into submission. Track two not only continues that trend but it broadens not only the musical spectrum of the recording but also its lyrical content. "A Little Bit Of Riddim" opens the door to the political nature of the band with lyrics like "when borders didn't have to mean concrete walls". Musically it opens things up more with some great horns and scratch guitar and a beat that will have you moving whether you want to or not.
"Life In The City" slows it down a bit with a more classic reggae beat, during which Michael gives a litany of reasons as to why you better live in the moment, "Cause you never know how long you live to you die". You never know when they're going to stop your car, search you, and search your house. Sure, one day there may not be secret prisons they can hide you away in – but that's not today. Franti continues on in the same vein with "Hey World (Remote Control Version)" where he exhorts all Rebel Rockers to put up a fight, cause remember, he says, the Patriot Act took away your rights.
While these opening tracks were pretty much what I had hoped for and expected from this disc, it was songs like the fifth track "All I Want Is You", which were the big surprise. The music is far more subdued than any of the previous tracks, and the lyrics are appropriately introspective. It's a highly intelligent and emotional love song delivered to the accompaniment of a gentle beat with some dubbing judiciously added to create an almost brooding atmosphere. However these guys aren't going to let you wallow around for long in contemplation as the next song "Say Hey (I Love You)" comes storming out with a calypso beat and jogs along making you realize how much joy there is to be had in love. This isn't one of those moaning, love has hurt me and left me bleeding on the sidewalk songs, this is a happy affirmation of the beauty of love.
The beauty of All Rebel Rockers is not only the musical diversity shown by the band, but the way they can switch pace without skipping a beat or sounding artificial. One minute you can be listening to a bottom heavy, skittish dance piece, then a gentle acoustic song, which in turn is followed by a guitar driven, rock/reggae song that shouts defiance against what Michael and the band see as the rot and corruption in society. ("Soundsystem", "Hey World (Don't Give Up Version)", and "The Future" respectively).
Maybe its not what a lot of people would call a reggae album, and technically they'd be right as not every song is a reggae song. However, Michael Franti & Spearhead have managed to recapture the same spirit that made Peter Tosh's music reach out and grab you in the way that only really potent reggae could. Political music doesn't have to be boring, and dance music doesn't have to be mindless; Michael Franti & Spearhead's latest release, All Rebel Rockers proves that out with every note played and every song sung.