Roots reggae long ago took a backseat to dancehall, and relatively few of the musicians who still play it are Jamaican. In fact, it’s something of a miracle that Winston Rodney AKA Burning Spear is still alive at 63, long after so many of his contemporaries – Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown, Jacob Miller and others – died under tragic, often violent circumstances. It might also be something of a miracle that Burning Spear remains not only lucid (after all that ganja), but arguably still as vital and important as he was thirty years ago.
Throughout the decade of the 1970s, Burning Spear was one of the most popular artists in Jamaica, second only to Big Youth. While most reggae hits from whatever era you choose are party songs, Burning Spear’s work was always serious, defiant and historically aware. Like Peter Tosh, his signature songs mix frequently scathing social commentary with Rastafarian mysticism. Burning Spear’s musical style, however, is strikingly different from many of the best-known reggae acts of his era, characterized by long, hypnotic, even trancelike anthems that in a live setting can go on for ten or even twenty minutes while the band breaks them down into spacey, echoey dub. While he’s been writing, arranging and producing for himself for decades, this is his debut on his own record label, Burning Music. It’s also his best studio album in a long, long time.
Unlike much of today’s reggae, this album has rich, 1970s production values, layering clinking guitar, bubbling organ, bright horns and backup singers over a fat, bass-heavy groove. Grandfather, a cautionary tale, traces the history of slavery around the world and warns that “slavery coming back again.” On the catchy No Compromise, Burning Spear announces that “My music eye opener music…hail to the one who never look back in the race.” With its Afrobeat guitar feel, One Africa is a fervent, Marcus Garvey-style call for unity. People in High Places calls for accountability from politicians; Run for Your Life snidely chronicles Burning Spear’s entanglements with the record industry, and how it’s imploded in recent years: “Distribution is so desperate…without the artist there is no company…Upcoming artists should take a stand, get some understanding before you sign.”
Clocking in at over eight minutes long, Step It is one of the amusingly interminable list songs that Burning Spear writes every so often. This one chronicles his travels around the world, namechecking just about every city he’s ever played, obviously tailor-made to be a live showstopper with a long instrumental break that threatens to turn into dub but never does. Stick to the Plan is a call to musicians to stay independent and original: “Remember reggae music never used to play on the radio…trying to roadblock us because we so original.” There’s a happy account of an outdoor reggae festival and another happy tale, this one about a reggae cruise, along with more bitterness returns on Wickedness, another tirade against the music industry: “Since 1969 they’ve been robbing, they’ve been holding onto what is mine,” Burning Spear laments. It has the ring of authenticity: innumerable musicians from the 1970s, not just reggae performers, have successfully sued for royalties they were never paid. The cd’s high point is You Were Wrong, a caustic, minor-key anthem with the same feel of Burning Spear classics like Door Peep or Cry Blood. Any way you look at it, this ranks with the best of his studio albums, including the classic Marcus Garvey, or Hail H.I.M, recorded with the Wailers. Longtime fans will find this a delightful throwback; otherwise, this is as good an introduction as any to one of the world’s greatest reggae artists. Burning Spear plays Irving Plaza on August 31 around 10 PM, advance tix highly recommended at the box office.
[Editor’s note: the author of this review was still seething over how disrespectfully police and security had treated an all-black crowd at an O’Jays concert in Crown Heights, Brooklyn the previous night, therefore the the angry tone and occasional profanity here.]
There is no need for overwhelming security at outdoor concerts in New York. End of story.
The Steel Pulse concert at Rockefeller Park tonight and the O’Jays show in Crown Heights Monday night were a study in contrasts. To any racist who would insinuate something to the effect of “the reason why we need ironclad security at Wingate Field is because it’s a bad neighborhood:” FUCK YOU. The crowd at Rockefeller Park in Battery Park City tonight was a quintessentially New York, beautifully multi-racial and multi-generational mix, probably about half-black. And just as at Wingate Field, there were no fights. There was a lot more weed-smoking tonight, and half the crowd was drinking – OMIGOD, THERE WERE PEOPLE DRINKING ALCOHOL, DECLARE A STATE OF EMERGENCY AND CALL OUT THE NATIONAL GUARD!!! But unlike at Wingate Field, this park is on the water, with innumerable exits available: if necessary the crowd could have dispersed in thirty seconds flat, rather than being forced to leave single-file through one single barbwire fence exit. Emphatic verdict: New Yorkers do not go to concerts to cause trouble. Repeat: THERE IS NO NEED FOR OVERWHELMING SECURITY AT ANY CONCERT ANYWHERE IN NEW YORK, EVER. EVER. EVER.
Sure, it never hurts to have a couple of big guys on hand to usher out the occasional drunk who’s had enough and can’t stop hitting on the women or otherwise causing trouble. But the all-black crowd Monday night in the middle of the ghetto in Crown Heights was just as lethargic and overwhelmed by the heat as the crowd at Steel Pulse tonight in the middle of yuppieville.
If you don’t already know them, Steel Pulse were the best of the many excellent British reggae bands of the 70s. Contemporaries of the Clash and Bob Marley, they distinguished themselves with their remarkable tunefulness as well as their penchant for relevant, spot-on social commentary. Their songwriting was remarkably complex, utilizing a lot of jazz chords, a far cry from the typically gnomic Rasta “reasoning” set to interminable two-chord jams that dominated a lot of classic-era reggae (although, if you’re, um, in the mood, all that can be great fun). Despite the fact that the band hit the stage at about 7:40 PM, most of the windows in the luxury highrises above were dark: the yuppies who live there are obviously all working overtime and unable to enjoy treats such as this. Their loss.
Steel Pulse are celebrating thirty years on the road and despite that managed to turn in a passionate, powerful set, even though most of it simply amounted to running through a lot of hits. They went on to a sarcastic intro of the Star Spangled Banner before launching into their own flag ballad, Rally Round (“Rally round the red, black, gold and green,” i.e. the colors of Africa). On the next tune, frontman David Hinds stopped it short, a typical move roots reggae bands use to energize the crowd: “Mi na waan stop-and-start, but,” he looked around,” Black holocaust still here.” If only he could have been in Crown Heights Monday night. Then he and the band launched back into No More Weapons, an anti-chemical warfare song echoing the Peter Tosh classic No Nuclear War. The sound system had been acting up, resulting in Hinds’ vocals being inaudible for the first half of Bodyguard, a ruthlessly deadly rejoinder to anyone who would safeguard the life of a fascist.
Reaffirming the band’s continuing relevance, they continued with a new song, the propulsive Door of No Return, about a visit to the infamous Ghanian prison where slaves were thrown in chains into slave ships. They closed the set with the big Rasta hit Stepping Out, but returned for a long encore that basically served as a second set. A medley of their classic hits came first: the fiery Soldiers, the defiant Taxi Driver (about how hard it is for a black man to catch a cab in New York City), and Blues Dance Raid, about getting an illegal concert shut down by the police. They kept the crowd bouncing with a remarkably raw, heartfelt version of Earth Crisis and then a tongue-in-cheek new cautionary tale, Global Warning, followed by the wry Babylon Makes the Rules. Steel Pulse are known for marathon sets, but at this point they played one final number and called it a night. It dread in dis year Babylon, but Jah (and Steel Pulse) give to I and I spiritual nourishment. And no guns. And no security.
Think about that for a minute. Remember – in a police state, everyone is a criminal.