When Aswad's lead singer Brinsley Forde asked, "Do you want to hear another style?" near the close of the British reggae group's 90-minute headlining set Sunday, the crowd of about 2,000 at the Cal State Dominguez Hill Velodrome got more than they bargained for. What followed was a verse of "Jailhouse Rock" before the group plunged back into its smooth rendition of Toots & the Maytals' "54-46 Was My Number."
Diversity and sophistication were the twin hallmarks of Aswad's impressive set. The group moved effortlessly between sweetly soulful numbers sung by drummer Angus (Drummie Zeb) Gaye to explosive dub passages. The octet's accomplished playing was marked by a jazz-like fluidity and tart yet airy vocal harmonies by the core trio of Forde, Gaye and bassist Tony (Gad) Robinson. The only problem was an over-reliance on audience participation routines that diverted attention from the group's strong and attractively varied music.
Second-billed Judy Mowatt--one of the I-Threes, the late Bob Marley's vocal backing group--is a gifted singer whose appeal could extend beyond the reggae audience if record labels and radio programmers would shed their reggae blinders. And in UB40's "Sing Our Own Song" Mowatt has latched on to the first inspirational reggae anthem in years capable of galvanizing audiences across the board like Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" and "Get Up, Stand Up" did.