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.