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POP MUSIC REVIEWS : Heptones Set Recalls Romance of Reggae

July 11, 1994|DON SNOWDEN

The Heptones' 40-minute opening set at LunaPark on Saturday took the audience back to reggae's pre-militant days, when romance ruled the lyrics and the musical models were such American soul groups as the Impressions and Temptations.

Contemporaries of the early Wailers and Toots & the Maytals as one of reggae's premier vocal groups, the Heptones broke up in 1978 before gaining wide recognition outside Jamaica, and the LunaPark show--both reunion and L.A. debut--delighted old devotees. It also veered close to nostalgia.

Barry Llewellyn and Earl Morgan each took lead vocals on one song but concentrated on backing Leroy Sibbles with high harmonies and loosely choreographed steps. The Heptones made the Jamaican soul connection explicit with a version of Sam Cooke's "Only Sixteen" and, backed by a strong septet of local reggae players, largely stuck to crisp, precise arrangements of love songs that echoed the original records.

But much of roots reggae's initial charge came from its recognition that the personal and political are intertwined. Even granting that the group was undoubtedly holding "Book of Rules," one of reggae's greatest soul/gospel-rooted songs, in reserve for the second set, the reunited Heptones (who are now recording new material) need to strike a better balance to avoid the nostalgia trap.

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