Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens and Burning Spear at Prospect Park Bandshell, Brooklyn NY 7/30/09

A frequently spellbinding show by two spiritually-inclined artists who don’t overstate their case. Brooklyn gospel veteran Naomi Shelton and her backing vocal trio the Gospel Queens – a recent addition to the Daptone roster – were backed by a capable four-piece band, their keyboardist sitting inscrutable behind his wraparound shades Brother Ray style. With her contralto rasp, Shelton doesn’t implore or go into a frenzy: she lets the songs speak for themselves. Likewise, the Gospel Queens – two of whom were given a turn on lead vocals and didn’t disappoint – keep the harmonies going without any ostentation. Their eleven-song set mixed scurrying vamps, warm Sam Cooke-inspired sixties-style gospel/soul and finally a funk number punctuated fluidly and soulfully by the bassist. But their best songs were ominously bluesy and minor-key: their opener, an understatedly dark version of Wade in the Water and their closing tune, the hauntingly memorable anthem What Have You Done.

Between sets, Burning Spear casually walked from the wings and addressed the crowd. Nobody seemed to notice or pay any mind: it looked as if he was presenting his guitar player with a ticket to the Grammies (Spear is a perennial nominee). Then the two went backstage again. But when the band took the stage, with a brief number sung by the rhythm guitarist and then a brief instrumental medley of hits, the crowd reaction was 180 degrees the opposite. This was a young massive, about 90% West Indian from the looks of it – awfully nice to see the youth of today in touch with the man who when all is said and done will probably rank as the greatest reggae artist of alltime. Jah Spear rewarded them with a characteristically intense, hypnotic show: now in his sixties, in his fourth decade of playing and recording, his warm, unaffected voice, casually magnetic stage presence and socially aware songwriting remain as strong as ever. Probably the most popular Jamaican artist throughout the decade of the 70s (Marley’s audience back home never matched his fan base in Babylon), Burning Spear’s songs typically build on long, trance-inducing vamps, in concert frequently going on for ten or fifteen minutes at a clip. Because this show had an early curfew, the band didn’t stretch out quite as long as they can, but it didn’t matter considering how strong the set list was – Spear has a vast back catalog, but this one was rich with gems from throughout his career. He opened with the sly boast Me Gi Dem, as in “Me gi dem what they want, yes me do.” The swaying 70s classic Old Marcus Garvey got a Tyrone Downie-style clavinet solo and then an incongruous metal solo (thankfully the only one of the night until the very end) from the lead guitarist. Slavery Days, from the classic Marcus Garvey album became an audience singalong, mostly just bass and drums behind the impassioned vocals. Burning Spear can be very funny despite himself: this time out, he was already asking the crowd, “Do you want more original reggae music?” three songs into the set.

They finally went into dub territory a bit on a long version of Jah No Dead, followed by a characteristically mesmerizing version of Driver (i.e. Jah is my driver; Jah is my rider also!). They closed the set with a soulful version of the backcountry anthem Man in the Hills, a tersely delicious take of the catchy Nyah Keith (best track on the classic 1980 Social Living album) and the only even relatively new song of the night, Jah Is Real (title track to last year’s excellent cd) which never really got off the ground as a singalong. But the first of the encores did: the scathing anthem Columbus, inarguably the most resonant deflation of the “Columbus discovered America” myth had the whole arena raising their voices to dismiss the “damn blasted liar” who happened upon Jamaica several millennia after the Arawaks did. After that, the catchy 70s hit The Sun couldn’t be anything but anticlimactic, but they ended the show on a high note with African Postman, Burning Spear relating the contents of a telegram with the message that “Now is the time that I and I and I should go home, yes Jah!” And with that the mellow posse of merrymakers departed, Jah Spear encouraging everyone to “watch your back on the way out, and on the way in.” If you weren’t there, you missed a real good one. Considering how vital he still is, it looks like he’s going to be around for a long time; watch this space for upcoming NYC dates.

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July 31, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Song of the Day 3/23/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Monday’s song is #492:

Burning Spear – Marcus Garvey

If you’re a reggae fan, you know this one, the prophetic 1974 title track from what might be the greatest roots reggae album ever. Yet the best version ever may be the one the band was doing in concert in the late 90s, amping it up to ska speed with a much more darkly direct, fiery horn chart. Look for a bootleg – the 1999 Central Park Summerstage version is transcendent. The youtube video above is choice too.

March 23, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Burning Spear – Jah Is Real

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.

August 19, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments