Note: This review got me uninvited to Reggae On The River. So be sure
to act nice if you want to be in good favor with these folks.
Reality Check On The River
I went to Reggae On The River this year with a dark cloud over my head.
Rumors of the dire condition of Fela Kuti in Nigeria spread over the Internet
the week before, making any pretense for celebration seem shallow. The news
broke for real on Sunday as the visibly shaken and heavy-hearted Nigerian
singer Sonny Okosuns stopped his set to make the announcement followed by
a moment of silence in honor of his friend Fela. The fact that the significance
of the loss was unappreciated by most of the crowd was frustrating.
Even without this sad news and everything it entailed, there was still something
missing from Reggae On The River 1997. I know after three years of reviewing
the same festival that I might be prone to noticing the smaller things.
Still, I would be negligent if I let them go unmentioned. There seemed to
be a proliferation of non-concious behavior more befitting fraternity members
than people wearing dreadlocks. When an announcement was made from stage
about the plight of the Headwaters area and the serious threat it faces
from logging interests (the theme of this years show was preservation of
ancient forests), cries of "Bullshit! Hug a fucking tree!" were
heard from the crowd. This in combination with several M-80s set off in
the parking lot; consistently unhelpful and frequently rude security people
(in one case a security person who was too busy smoking a joint to help
a lost child find her mother); rumors of an armed (but fortunately non-violent)
threat at the entry to the festival on Friday; and all too frequent encounters
with gate-crashers in my (unsecure) camping area make me wonder if Reggae
On The River is on the downside of its once majestic peak.
These happenings quickly added up to a far less inspiring experience than
the event that I actually called 'the greatest reggae festival in the world,'
one short year ago. The constant distractions made it difficult for me to
critically evaluate many performances. I was also disappointed by the top-heavy
line-up, with near overdoses of 70s reggae heavyweights such as Bunny Wailer,
Burning Spear, Culture, and Toots & The Maytals. Also, there was nothing
in the line-up, with the possible exception of Nadine Sutherland or J.C.
Lodge, particularly relevant to the contemporary Jamaican scene, which is
a shame. Artists like Everton Blender, Prezident Brown, Yami Bolo, Daddy
Rings, Anthony B, and countless others deserve exposure to this crowd. When
compared to sensational line-up at June's successful Sierra Nevada Festival,
it is doubtful whether Reggae On The River was even the best reggae festival
in California this year.
On Friday evening, good sets were turned in by Parisian roots reggae group
Kreyol Syndikat -- a new signee to Tuff Gong International, and an international
Latin-tinged amalgamation known as Wild Mango. The Ital Lights video show
was interesting but was quickly made intolerable by excessive, amateurish
toasting from backstage. I don't want to hear anyone chat over Bob Marley
and Luciano vocal cuts.
On Saturday, Native Elements capably started the day with a set of Phillipino
roots reggae. Hedzoleh Soundz, with the undistinguished draw of second act,
blew everyone before and after them off the stage in terms of pure musical
ability, if not also in terms of aesthetic of presentation. This made every
subsequent act harder to appreciate. I've said it before, and I'll say it
again, the African artists are premier caliber musicians and deserve better
billing at Reggae On The River. Morgan Heritage, who played a Hollywood
(MCA) style R&B set three years ago, came off the hook with 100 percent
Rastafari roots & culture. Their power and confidence was unmistakable
and unforgettable. I missed reportedly good sets from Born Jamericans, Christafari,
and Nadine Sutherland. Saturday was also highlighted by an incredible set
of soca by the Mighty Sparrow, who yucked up the festival with the most
slack and obscene jokes he could pull out of his pants. Lucky Dube was extremely
solid with his new band, and his level of recognition with the crowd was
evident and energizing. I was too exhausted to witness more than three songs
from Jah B, Bunny Wailer, but he reportedly turned in a marathon two and
half hour set of musical prophesy.
Sunday is always is different vibe at Reggae On The River -- usually due
to that 'I've gotta leave tomorrow' feeling. Makka and particularly Jumbalassay
energized the crowd early in the day. The Reggae Cowboys, a Humboldt County
favorite, justified their strange name and appearance by making a historical
connection to the contribution of Africans in the American West. I missed
the sets from Beniah and JC Lodge, saving my energy for Culture, who sounded
extremely tight with the Dub Mystic band. Joseph Hill's and Albert Walker's
continued association with this group has been the foundation of its resurgent
success. As mentioned, Sonny Okosuns was visibly, deeply saddened as he
performed, but nonetheless was outstanding. I missed Toots Hibbert, but
he also reportedly turned in a good set.
Spear, who was also a friend of Fela, focused his energies and delivered
one of the best reggae sets I've seen in four years at Reggae On The River.
It didn't appear that anyone went home early Sunday night, which is a tribute
to Spear's popularity. The grounds were full, alive and rocking as the legend
took the stage. His band has seen some line-up changes since last year,
but it has been an improvement if anything. He methodically took the group
through extended vocal and dub-style renditions of both his classics and
newer material. He was dressed in denim and a red, gold and green tie-die
t-shirt. Burning Spear may be on target to aim at the Dead crowd with "Play
Jerry," which went over well in one of its debut performances. Unfortunately,
I really doubt Spear's music is best appreciated while tripping on LSD,
ecstacy or any of the other all too plentiful non-ganja type intoxicants
being circulated over the weekend. Without even mentioning that he had a
new album out in two days, Spear delivered an unpretentious set and went
on his way, still crucial after all these years.
The tension in the air between the members of the Mateel Community Center
(the sponsor) and People Productions (the for-profit production company/organizer)
was disturbingly evident and a downer when I recall how it seemed three
years ago. Clearly, Reggae On The River is being subjected to the almighty
dollar, which additionally resulted in Reggae On The River Oregon -- another
event which licensed the name. Commerciality is not pure evil in and of
itself by any stretch of the imagination. However, when a for-profit motive
replaces what was once an unthinkalbly unselfish community collaberation,
problems are bound to come to the surface.
This event is still an overall success and one of the greatest opportunities
for exposure for artists in a country where reggae is falling on the hardest
times it has seen since it first gained acceptance here. On another positive
note, several unforgettable performances plus the immeasurable joy of conversations
with the friends I've met at Reggae On The River over the years made for
a worthwhile weekend and nothing I regret attending.
Copyright 1997 Carter Van Pelt