Midway through the Reggae Sunsplash festival at the Greek Theatre on Saturday, singer Sugar Minott declared, "This is nonfiction, reality music!"
True enough, but if the first day of this annual weekend festival lacked the utter emotional weight of, say, this year's Bob Marley Day Festival in Long Beach, blame would go to the fun but lightweight headliners Big Mountain.
Fueled with dramatic beats and rich arrangements, Big Mountain made music that was endlessly upbeat but ultimately lacking in the profound soulfulness of the most meaningful reggae. The young seven-piece band from San Diego offered musical messages on love and peace culled from its new "Resistance" album, sometimes drifting into surprisingly forgettable pop. In fact, the group occasionally left reggae altogether during an hourlong set, as when singer Quino led it through a surprisingly effective Spanish version of Peter Frampton's '70s hit "Baby I Love Your Way."
The festival's more meaningful moments came during a rousing version of Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up" by Judy Mowatt and from the sheer frantic energy of Jamaican deejay Capleton, who this year is making his first appearance on the U.S. Sunsplash tour. Resplendent in a baggy purple suit smothered in tassels and gold trim, Capleton sang in a hyper ragamuffin rap to rushed beats and slowed romantic rhythms.
Reggae veteran Dennis Brown emerged Saturday like a Rastafarian Tom Jones. Wearing a tux, with dreadlocks hanging neatly to his belt, Brown delivered smooth vocals that were a warm, comforting presence rolling along thick bass lines and traditional keyboard patterns.
If much of Brown's material was pleasant but unremarkable, at least it left guitarist Rohan Reid with some room for a few moments of inspired jamming before Brown found inspiration and energy for a rousing finale.
* The Reggae Sunsplash tour will be at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on Friday, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine, 5 p.m. $25, $22, $16.50. (714) 855-4515.