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POP WEEKEND : The Heat Was On but Lightning Didn’t Strike Toots Show

Inspiration can strike at the most inconvenient times. A case in point would be a Toots and the Maytals’ show at the Coach House early last year. Singer Toots Hibbert came on stage 40 minutes late, having waited for a less turbulent moment in the flu that was gripping him. After another 40 minutes of dutiful performance and obvious suffering, Hibbert could have retreated from the stage honorably, and began making motions to do so.

But then something took hold of him: His husky shouts overpowered the rasp in his sore throat; his body became his band’s rhythms; and it seemed as if the soul of Otis Redding had descended on him like a hammer. This continued and built for another 70 minutes or so, with Hibbert only snapping out of it for brief instants--usually only long enough to pitifully cry “This flu (is) killing me!"--before being swept back up in something so beyond his control that his illness would just have to wait until later to exact its toll.

The other residual effect of such fits of glory is that they can make a performer’s average shows seem that much dimmer. Such was the case Friday night at the Coach House, where it was pretty much business as usual for Hibbert and his Maytals. Fortunately, everyday Toots can also be pretty remarkable.

He arguably has the finest voice in reggae, possessing much of the grit and passion of the departed Mr. Redding. His material has always taken a more soulful bent than most of his dreadlocked contemporaries, and his recent “Toots in Memphis” album was a bold and thoroughly successful hybrid of island rhythms and Memphis fatback soul.

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Friday, he drew chiefly from that album and from his successes of the early ‘70s. In the former category were Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” Redding’s “Hard to Handle,” and a rendition of “Knock on Wood” that went through some devious rhythmic permutations. Even the frat-band fave “Louie Louie” was bestowed a Memphis majesty by Hibbert’s emotive throat and his heated band.

Led by his son Hopeton on bass, the band was remarkably responsive to Hibbert’s moods and moves, as well as bursting with individual fire. A smaller outfit than he’s fielded in the past--minus the sax player and Hibbert’s singing daughters of last year’s shows, and with some different members--they still kicked some vicious pulses and musical surprises into each song.

They laid a killer James-Brown-on-jet-skis riff on “Roots Rock Reggae,” while the venerable “Funky Kingston” was a lesson in the subtle and infinite variety of ways to express a groove. Hibbert’s two-decade old “Time Tough,” “Pressure Drop,” “Monkey Man” and “54-46, That’s My Number” also seemed thoroughly fresh-brewed.

But one couldn’t help wishing just a touch of flu on Hibbert, if that’s what it takes to get lightning to strike him. He is a finer and livelier performer than there is right to expect after a career as long and as hard as his (he began recording nearly 30 years ago and, incidentally, was the first to coin the term reggae on record). Whether that inspiration strikes may be beyond one’s control. But the Redding-like emotion and magic Hibbert sometimes achieves is such a very rare thing that it is a shame he doesn’t push himself to the utmost to achieve it.

There were moments Friday when he seemed to catch it--on his extremely funky version of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and shouting and frugging through a slashing take of “Monkey Man"--but as often as not he went through the affectations of soul--the “Good god! y’all!” shouts and such--without the engagement necessary to make them glow.

The show was opened by the local Common Sense band, which made about as much sense as any other bunch of Californians slinging rasta lingo. Somehow, condo kids singing in a Trenchtown ghetto patois just doesn’t ring true. The group did offer a well-propelled, if wholly derivative, set of Wailer-type reggae, one that boasted this sprout-head couplet: “If the girl is vegetarian / You know the girl’s worth marryin’.”


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