Among the most eye- and ear-opening, glorious surprises I experienced on the job last year was catching the Wailers at the Coach House. Going into the show, I had a bad attitude about the whole thing--surely, this would be a reggae version of one of those ersatz Coasters or Ink Spots that tours the country with anonymous nobodies in the lineup, dragging the group's name through the mud to make a few quick bucks off people's nostalgia.
How dare any group try to pass itself off as the Wailers with not only Bob Marley long passed on, but Peter Tosh and drummer Carlton Barrett as well? These guys didn't even include Bunny Wailer, who had long since gone solo. The very idea was an affront to the real Wailers' legacy.
But as it turned out on that hot July night in '95, I ate crow and savored every delicious bite. The Wailers not only did sweet justice to the music of Marley, but they also had a bunch of inspired new material very much in the spirit of the original sound, and an exceptionally gifted front man in Junior Marvin. The Wailers were alive and quite well, and I was an enthusiastic convert.
And so it is my pleasure to report that the Wailers will return to the Coach House on Wednesday night in support of a new album sure to delight not only fans of the Marley-led band but aficionados of true roots reggae in general.
"Jah Message" features melodic, groove-heavy songs very much in sync with Marley's melodic and spiritual muse. It ably demonstrates the strengths of Marvin on guitar and vocals, original members Aston "Family Man" Barrett on bass and Earl Lindo on organ, plus percussionist Alvin Patterson, keyboard player Martin Batista, drummer Michael Richards, guitarist Hiro Fukai and background singers Peter Gayle, Renee Taylor and Melissa Rowe.
Marvin is neither blind nor unsympathetic to the preconceived notions of those who might, as I did, approach the group with apprehension. But he refuses to let negativity bother him, as he goes into this with Marley's personal blessing.
"A lot of people feel like Bob is gone, so it has to be that the Wailers are over," Marvin said during a recent phone conversation. "But it was Bob's wish for us not to break up. He said, 'Hey, you guys stay together. You might have a lot of opposition, but stick to it.'
"Bob always made us feel that it was the Wailers, not Bob Marley and the Wailers. We feel like Bob is still with us, and he lets us know if we do a bad show. We keep it the way it was and hopefully better."
Indeed, Marvin's voice bears no small resemblance to Marley's, though it is deeper and pays more of a debt to American soul music. The rhythm section anchored by Barrett remains the finest in reggae, carving canyon-deep grooves that invoke a kind of hypnotic rapture. Aside from the music itself, the Wailers put on a fantastic show: Their swaying, skanking bodies inspire the audience to let go of its inhibitions and join in.
The group takes its traditions seriously. A lot of contemporary reggae, Marvin said, "is about technology, man, but we try to stick to the roots. We try really hard. . . . For us, every performance is important. For me, every performance is not just another show, it's the show."
Marvin, 40, was born and raised in Jamaica and moved to London as a teenager to attend music school. By 17, he was playing in a band with the seminal blues man T-Bone Walker.
Marvin met Marley in London in 1977 and was asked to join the Wailers to record the "Exodus" album. He appears on all Marley's subsequent recordings with the Wailers through 1980, when Marley died of cancer.
Along with fronting the Wailers, Marvin has been recording an album of his own that he plans to shop to labels with an eye toward a fall release. He says the album will be more musically diverse than his work with the Wailers and will show the influence of Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones and the Beatles.
He said he wants to continue with the Wailers and to develop his own career at the same time. "I'm trying to talk Family Man Barrett into doing a solo album as well," he said. "To me, he is the bass man in reggae. It'd be nice to have my album and his album and a Wailers album all out at the same time so we could promote together. We could tour, do our songs, do Bob Marley songs, and it would be an even more fulfilling event."
* The Wailers play Wednesday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Blue Machine opens at 8 p.m. $25-$27. (714) 496-8930.