Catch A Fire is nowhere near being my favorite Bob Marley album. Not even close. I'm much more partial to his latter work, like Kaya and especially the great Exodus. But Catch A Fire was the album designed by Chris Blackwell and Island Records to break both Marley and reggae music in general here in the United States (there was already a strong buzz in England).
What I will tell you is this. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have seen Bob Marley and the Wailers in concert twice before his untimely death in 1981. And let me tell you, at the time, there was nothing quite like it. The crowd Marley drew back then was an odd mix to be sure. In fact, the closest thing I could compare it to would be a Grateful Dead concert. Lots of hippies. Lots of pot smoke in the air. And at one of the two shows I saw, several hippie chicks doing that fertility sort of dance that they do topless up and down the aisles.
But what I most remember from those Marley concerts I saw back in the seventies was the unbelievably hypnotic groove these guys would lock themselves into. The effect was nothing short of trancelike. And politically charged lyrics aside, that groove just took you away to a completely different place.
While this DVD largely focuses on the making of Catch A Fire, what really makes it worth the price of admission is the rare concert footage that shows up near the end. Shot during Marley's 1973 tour in Edmonton, London, the two-song sequence shown here is in the sort of very grainy black and white you'd mostly expect from something unearthed from the vaults that long ago.
But the hypnotic groove these guys lock into took me right back to when I saw Marley at Seattle's Paramount Theatre in the seventies. The two songs played, "Slave Driver" (from Catch A Fire) and "Get Up Stand Up" (the Marley classic from it's followup Burnin), show just why these guys from Jamaica caught the ears of so many British rock musicians at the time. Like I said, the groove is one you could get easily lost in.
As for the rest of this DVD? The making of Catch A Fire is recounted in interviews with most of the principals involved, including interviews with Chris Blackwell, Bunny Wailer, Rita Marley, and rare interviews with Peter Tosh and Marley himself. What is most revealing about this is just how focused Blackwell was on breaking Marley in the States. He brought in London session guys like guitarist Wayne Perkins and keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick to "sweeten" the sound for American audiences, only to have their parts on the album re-taught to them by Marley himself.
When you look at how mainstream Bob Marley is considered to be today — with your average Microsoft exec filing Legend in between Van Morrison's Moondance and the latest by Sting in his CD collection — it's fascinating how this DVD recalls the challenge of bringing reggae music to America back in the seventies.
Equally fascinating is the stock footage of Marley, Tosh, and company actually making the Catch A Fire album at Jamaica's Dynamic Studios, surrounded by the poverty stricken neighborhoods shown in several home movies included. There are also several revealing bits of information here, such as how some Marley devotees would go so far as to threaten DJs who wouldn't play his music in what can only be described as Sopranos style.
On a somewhat lighter note, several of these home movies reveal that Bob Marley and company were never too far way from a newspaper-sized spliff.
In retrospect, Catch A Fire never did end up being the intended album that would break Bob Marley wide open here in the States (I'd have to credit Rastaman Vibration for that), but it clearly laid the groundwork. As a historical look into the making of that pivotal album, this DVD clearly serves it purpose.
But that concert footage from 1973? Now, that's what I'm talking about.