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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Aswad at the Palace

July 08, 1988|STEVE HOCHMAN

The tide may finally be turning for reggae in America. The crowd that packed the Palace on Tuesday to hear the English band Aswad was a mixture of blacks and whites, longtime roots reggae fans and newer enthusiasts--just the kind of healthy blend that has eluded reggae in this country. And for the most part, Aswad showed that it deserves a wide following.

If Ziggy Marley has ascended as reggae's crown prince, Aswad is its court jester. With animated singer/guitarist Brinsley Forde leading the way, the Palace show was heavy on such shtick as freeze-frame posing, call-and-response audience participation, musicians shuffling across the stage en masse--and that was just the first five minutes.

That sort of thing continued throughout the 90-minute show, accented by such lowbrow gestures as throwing in snatches of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" (during the slinky ballad "Don't Turn Around," a recent English chart-topper) and "Jailhouse Rock," and the use of the "Batman" theme as the basis of an encore instrumental.

Behind the crowd-pleasing clowning was some strong material, which ultimately won out over the antics. Aswad's music is a rock/soul/reggae blend similar to that of UB40. Its forte is the melodic ballads on which drummer Drummie Zeb stepped out to take the lead vocal.

And the group--a core trio supplemented on stage by six musicians including a three-piece horn section--demonstrated its range by rocking convincingly on the closing, politically charged "Set Them Free." While Marley appears to be the only reggae artist able to make much headway on the American charts, Tuesday's concert proved that Aswad is ready to join UB40 and Steel Pulse as consistently popular attractions in what appears to be a solid U.S. market for the music.

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