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.