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