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Reggae Great Wailer In Long Beach

July 14, 1986|STEVE HOCHMAN

For longtime reggae fans, the appearance of Bunny Wailer at Cal State Long Beach on Saturday held historical significance--this was the first-ever solo concert outside Jamaica by the singer who, along with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, was a founding member of the ground-breaking group the Wailers. His three-hour performance proved worth the wait, as Wailer affirmed his place as one of the field's all-time greats.

Much of the show on the campus' Festival Field was devoted to songs that conveyed the spirit of Jah love and the global struggle for freedom. Wailer's serenity and sweet, soulful voice added power to the righteous (though never self-righteous) fire of his songs and between-song sermons. A large stage entourage (as many as a dozen musicians, plus singers and two trios of African-rooted dancers) emphasized the communal feeling of the music.

Backed by the strong 809 Band, the golden-robed Wailer opened the show with a set of slinky songs, their messages supplemented by such offerings as a Biblical reading discouraging the eating of meat. Wailer's sweet, soulful voice is a sharp yet gentle vehicle for his passion. In a second set, Wailer (sans robe and now backed by the group Roots Radics plus some of 809's members) was more animated, though no less passionate, as the music took on a rougher tone.

A third and final set, with the band now anchored by the top Jamaican rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, served as a tribute to the music of Bob Marley.

The problem with reggae stems from the monotony of the loping beat, and the absence, since Marley's death five years ago, of a leader to push the music in new directions. Wailer doesn't appear to be that leader, but the power of his delivery and the familiarity of the Marley material kept the long, sun-baked afternoon (which also featured sets by Leroy Sibbles and Ras Michael) from dragging.

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