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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Maxi Priest Aims Reggae at Mainstream

While M.C. Hammer, Vanilla Ice and Milli Vanilli were commanding the chart headlines this year, Britain’s Maxi Priest quietly became one of the handful of reggae-rooted artists to score a No. 1 pop hit with the Soul II Soul-style “Close to You.” Priest’s 90-minute set before a full house at the 1,300-capacity Mayan on Sunday stuck closer to traditional reggae grooves--although not as close as reggae purists might have liked.

Priest’s sound was basically urban-contemp’rary reggae--slick, up-tempo grooves sometimes prone to overly busy arrangements form his seven-piece band. The Jamaican roots tradition wasn’t entirely neglected--the bass-driven “dub” portion of “Temptress” got a strong verbal and physical reaction from the dance-oriented crowd.

Particularly effective was an extended workout on the ballad “Space in My Heart” that swung into Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” (Priest’s U.K. breakthrough) and a singalong that was more communal celebration than show-biz artifice.

A version of Rod Stewart’s “Some Guys Have All the Luck” also hit home, but it emphasized a recurring weakness--Priest’s reliance on reggae versions of pop material. But his performance showed that he’s spearheading the drive to move reggae from the hip rock sector to the R&B;/dance mainstream--precisely the kind of youthful, ethnically mixed audience that Bob Marley and other reggae pioneers were aiming for.

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