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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Refreshing Reggae, Praise Be, Follows Irvine Show’s Teaching, Preaching

Times Staff Writer

Drum rolls and synthesized music of the spheres swirled with portent, then a figure robed in priestly vestments appeared, stretched out his arms and said, “Behold.”

A glitzy holiday extravaganza at the Crystal Cathedral? No, just a Sunday-night reggae show at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.

The self-consciously beatific entrance was cause for fretting, even though the man in the holy Rastafarian trappings was Bunny Wailer, last living founder of the Wailers, a band that had few rivals in creating music with lasting spiritual and social impact.

Wailer (given name: Neville Livingston) had come to teach and preach, and that’s about all he did during the first half of a show that lasted more than 2 hours.

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Even a good sermon can become wearisome unless there is some climactic occasion to lend the words special weight or some special brilliance to the discourse that raises it from mere instruction to memorable storytelling. While any tour by the reclusive Wailer is a special occasion for reggae fans, the Jamaican singer’s first hour on stage turned into sermonizing, not storytelling.

There was no questioning the virtue or importance of Wailer’s message, which proclaimed the need for justice, freedom and a sense of individual self-worth. Wailer also brought some special strengths to the delivery of songs with social themes and spiritual resonances: a gentleness that allowed him to be trenchant without sounding strident and a sense of proportion that enabled him to be urgent, yet not hysterical.

Wailer’s socio-spiritual rambles included some solid material--first from his early days as a Wailer and as a solo artist, then from his new album, “Liberation.” But the songs and lofty spoken interludes added up to something more didactic than enthralling. It didn’t help that Wailer had to compete with a rumbling, overamplified bass.

Just when one began to wonder whether he might be more interested in occupying a pulpit than a concert stage, Wailer changed everything. Reggae, he declared, is intended to refresh the body and soul as well as stir the mind and spirit. Off came the robes embroidered with Rasta iconography; out came Wailer in dancing trim, and away went the whole 20-member ensemble--including two wonderfully limber and athletic male dancers--for an excursion that was refreshment with a capital R.

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The songs, including a sharp Wailers medley in honor of the group’s other co-founders, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, were catchy, lively reggae dance music that seemed a special treat after the heavy early going. The Bunny Wailer who had seemed so imposingly patriarchal showed that he can also be a strutting, whirling party hound of the first order.

The second half’s easy fun made the first half’s lofty seriousness seem more palatable in retrospect. But Wailer’s final number pointed to how the best rock songs can unite fun with seriousness. The song was “Keep On Moving,” a deceptively catchy Wailers gem that, if you concentrate on the words, is about an innocent poor man hounded by false criminal accusations. For the most part, Wailer’s musical sermons early in the show could only tell about injustice. “Keep On Moving,” besides its uncommon melodic strengths, conjured up a story that showed injustice happening. “Show, don’t tell” is one homily that songwriters can take as gospel.

Wailer’s set capped a 6-hour evening steeped in reggae tradition. Second-billed Judy Mowatt, a longtime member of Marley’s I-Threes backup vocal group, displayed a superb, flexible voice that can handle rootsy reggae as well as pop-soul stylings. There was a substantial gap, however, between Mowatt’s own material and the Wailers songs--especially a moving “No Woman No Cry"--that highlighted her hourlong set.

Andrew Tosh, Peter’s son, also had his best moment with a playful rendition of a Wailers song, “I’m the Toughest.” Tosh also sang a plaintive yet strangely impersonal song addressed to his father’s murderers.

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The Skatalites, a horn-driven band that was crucial to reggae’s birth in the early 1960s, got the audience hopping gleefully as it offered quick-stepping ska rhythms and sax and trumpet solos in a jazzy, lightly tootling style. But the 10-man band, which included seven original members, performed with too much reserve for its lighthearted style of music, and an upright bass boomed annoyingly out of control.

Ras Michael began the day with a spare, percussive set built around prayerful traditional reggae songs in what amounted to an opening benediction.


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