It may be time for the record industry to look seriously at reggae again.
The Jamaican style, spearheaded by the late Bob Marley, was touted as a "next big thing" 15 years ago, but it failed to make a pop breakthrough and was soon pigeonholed as a cult music. For many fans, the last hope ended with Marley's death in 1981. To them, Marley was reggae.
But the capacity turnout of 11,000 for the Bob Marley Day concert Sunday at the Long Beach Arena--more than double the attendance at last year's event at the Santa Monica Civic--indicated that reggae has spawned a sizable second-generation audience.
While Marley remains a revered figurehead, this new audience--much of it of high school and college age--is embracing new heroes, including Marley's teen-age son, Ziggy, and England's UB40. This young audience also seems attracted by reggae's distinctive, almost communal feeling (much of the arena lobby was filled with the crafts displays that are a familiar part of large reggae gatherings).
UB40's "Sing Our Own Song" could be an anthem embodying the second generation's experience as perfectly as the Bob Marley-Peter Tosh classic "Get Up Stand Up" did for the earlier reggae fans.
Judy Mowatt, in fact, performed "Sing Our Own Song," though she slipped it in early in her 45-minute set rather than saving it for a triumphant finale. But the former backing singer for Marley still offered the most striking blend of contemporary and classic reggae on the eight hour-plus bill, which also featured Daddy U-Roy, Al Campbell, Haile Maskel and Matuzalem.
Remarkably, Mowatt's sophisticated arrangements blended '60s girl-group harmonies, dance-hall toasting (Jamaican rapping) and American-style rapping without ever sounding artificial or forced.
Working with a local band rather than a regular unit eliminated some of her subtle intricacies. Yet Mowatt's soaring voice (reminiscent of Martha Reeves') smoothed over the rough patches.
Pato Banton, the young British toaster who was the only second-generation artist featured, could do no wrong for the crowd during his hourlong set. But his performance foundered on the question facing reggae's up-and-coming artists: Can they write songs as memorable as those of their predecessors?
Banton operated in a slick, rock-influenced dance-hall style, but seemed more concerned with--and was more successful at--pushing his personality than making significant music.
Although some of his socially conscious themes were laudable (anti-apartheid, anti-cocaine), the presentation was often trite--as on the sing-along of "What the World Needs Now Is Love." Banton claimed that he helped pioneer England's rapid-fire "fast talking" deejay style, but it doesn't matter how fast you say something if you don't have much to say.
Then again, you could be Burning Spear, a.k.a. Winston Rodney, whose voice alone is unforgettable. The veteran Jamaican singer displayed the liquid, grainy voice that gives him the authoritative air of a village elder entrusted with handing the tradition down.
Unlike Banton's, his 90-minute set made minimal concessions to show-biz ritual. A "do you want a sing-along?" query during "Slavery Days" was less an invitation than a challenge--reminiscent of Robert DeNiro's "you talkin' to me?" line in "Taxi Driver."
Even as the event celebrated Marley's birthday (he would have been 44 on Monday), the energy of the artists and the audience seemed to point to the future. The influx of young fans, who are growing up with their own heroes, may well be helping reggae move out of Marley's shadow.