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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Production values tame reggae's wild spirit

August 26, 2003|Dean Kuipers | Special to The Times

With roots deep in the mid-1960s Kingston, Jamaica, "rock steady" sound but exhibiting decades of evolution, the reggae giants who played the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday -- Jimmy Cliff, Toots & the Maytals and Freddie McGregor -- perfectly represented the syncretic tradition of Jamaican music and, one supposes, the post-modern message of KCRW-FM's (89.9) World Festival at the Bowl. But other than spotty highlights, the slick, contemporary presentations made a lot of the show feel like "Reggae! The Musical!"

Cliff's depiction of the gun-toting, drug-dealing singer in the 1973 cult film "The Harder They Come" cut a street-tough image that endeared the music to rockers and punks. When his young group took the stage Sunday looking like a high school jazz band, however, one was quickly reminded that his latest work was alongside Elton John on the "Lion King" soundtrack.

The ebullient Cliff launched them into a big-band disco version of "Reggae Nights," among other production-number-style arrangements. He finally filled the aisles with dancers with his hit version of the 1970 Cat Stevens song "Wild World."

Though the core of the reggae experience was still there, the Vegas touches left the performance feeling empty.

Toots & the Maytals seemed more down to earth, opening their set with their 1969 smash "Pressure Drop." The band demonstrated the malleability of the form, switching up from roots rock to steaming, Otis Redding-style soul to straight-up Afrobeat. Though crooner McGregor also ran through an amazing number of his 1970s "lovers' rock" hits, combining a reggae beat with smooth R&B, many of them were covered in medley form.

The night was saved by Cliff's last number, unplugged, on hand-drums and vocal harmonies, working through gospel-like verses including lines from "Rivers of Babylon." This was the true spirit of reggae at last.

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