Reggae is some of the best music ever invented for moving your body, and arguably the worst for fomenting revolutions. After all, it's hard to incite a civic uprising when you're swaying your hips to a languid, offbeat tempo that's designed to sonically complement the sacramental ingesting of large quantities of recreational stimulants.
So what's a socially committed Rastaman to do? If he's Michael Rose, of Black Uhuru renown, one option is to deliver the liberationist message in a mellow, but insistent and irresistible, groove. If he's Frederick "Toots" Hibbert fronting the Maytals, the strategy is to pitch a tent that's big enough to accommodate gospel, Memphis soul and Afro-beat influences, and assume the role of a jovial evangelist urging his audience to join hands in forging a musical brotherhood.
"I'm going to be your teacher and you're all going to be my students!" Hibbert announced to a sell-out Hollywood Bowl crowd Sunday night at KCRW's World Festival Reggae Night VIII. If you were among the hundreds skanking in the aisles, you already know that Toots' instructional methods are as pleasurable as they are persuasive.
Originally, the two faces of reggae at the Bowl were supposed to be three. The bill called for the old school triumvirate of Rose, Toots and Gregory Isaacs, but that hallowed trio became a duo when Isaacs had to drop out because of illness. Although Isaacs, who returned to vintage form with last year's studio release "Brand New Me," was badly missed, his absence resulted in a case of addition by subtraction. Expanding their sets to about 75 minutes apiece, Rose and Toots offered fuller retrospectives on their long careers -- together, practically a history of Jamaican popular music over the last 40 years.
My first live encounter with Toots and a previous version of the Maytals occurred in Brighton, England, in the early 1980s. That's when snarling skinhead punk rockers and pork pie-hatted ska bands were rediscovering the roots rhythms that Toots, Prince Buster and their Kingston confreres stitched together from gospel harmonies, choppy guitars and old Louis Jordan records they'd rummaged in Jamaica's gritty townships in the 1950s. Toots was hailed at that Brighton concert hall as a Caribbean prophet of two-tone aesthetics.
On Sunday, dressed in a white vest, pants and headband and a black shirt, Toots looked and sounded as robust as ever. Fist-bumping and glad-handing, he led off with "Pressure Drop" and never let up with his soaring, muscular vocals and infectiously good-natured enthusiasm.
For several numbers he picked up an acoustic guitar and strummed along. On the bluesy cri de coeur "Treat Me Good" he blew harmonica vehemently between lyrics. Several times toward the end of a song, he and his excellent bandmates whipped up the beat into a frothy ska tempo, proving that laid-back reggae can rock out when it pleases. (The gesture worked especially well on a revved-up version of "Funky Kingston.")
Apprenticed in youth to a gospel choir, Toots entreats listeners to unite with him in an impromptu congregation of the Divine Funk. On "Reggae Got Soul," he waved his hands at the crowd in secular benediction. On "Never Get Weary" he communicated the gravitas and yearning resiliency you'd expect from a centuries-old slave spiritual, while lead guitarist Carl Harvey tacked on a scorching solo.
"My message to you is love and happiness," Toots announced. As if we couldn't have guessed.
Starting off the evening, Rose wasn't concerned with sweetness and light. His songs, with such revealing titles as "Plastic Smile," "Abortion" and "Police and Thief" (which uses keyboard sound effects to mimic a shootout), tend to simmer and seethe. Doom-laden patois prophesies abound in such tunes as "Bull in the Pen," jostling ominously with the multilayered dubs and reverbs. Five songs into his set, Rose, in sunglasses and a towering purple hat, barely had said boo to his listeners.
But reggae's bong is usually worse than its bite, and Rose is no exception. His references to the liturgy of toke smoking prompted much eager head-nodding by one graying couple seated in front of me, perhaps thinking back to their younger, sybaritic selves.
By the time he wrapped up with the hopeful refrains of the peace anthem "Solidarity," Rose had moved away from stoned militancy and squarely into Toots and the Maytals' amen corner.