Sly and Robbie / Burning Spear Metropolis, Montreal QC, July 1
Published Jul 02, 2014It's hard to overstate the influence of Sly and Robbie not only on reggae music in the studio but onstage. Pretty much every single reggae band in the world is patterned after what they did on stage with Peter Tosh in the late '70s. They specialized, with Tosh's encouragement, in tearing down a groove mid-song then building it back up again instrument by instrument, with special emphasis on bass, drums and effects to create the "live dub" sound. This technique is made all the more powerful by Sly Dunbar's mechanical precision on drums, which works so well with digital delay, contrasting with Robbie Shakespeare's relentless but McCartney-esque bass lines. Their hallmark is their perfection, and on that score, it appears Sly and Robbie have lost a half step over the years.
Sly is as solid as ever in defining the beats but Robbie's bass was imprecise. Affected by occasional tuning or timing problems along with his own limitations as a soloist, he was merely very good. However, guest vocalist Bitty Mclean, a frequent collaborator, raised their game. Mclean has one of the great voices in reggae and should be better known, even though all his songs are covers of soul chestnuts. His polished suave stage presence delighted many and puzzled a few who came for the Rasta militancy of Burning Spear. They soon got it. Spear was ready for work, having not performed in Montreal in four years. This was a major event in 514 reggae, and drew a regional crowd to fill the big room.
Spear did not disappoint. Like Steve Martin, Spear has looked and sounded old prematurely since the beginning, which means that he can trade on the same appeal pretty much forever. At age 69, he had way more energy than most onstage, and was every bit as good as he's ever been — in fine voice and an excellent conga player to boot. He used a handheld mic (decorated in Rasta colours) for the 90-minute show, which itself would've been tiring on the arms, but dude's clearly been working out. Spear commands so much respect that the crowd was in a frenzy even though he didn't play any of his biggest international hits from 1976's Marcus Garvey album until 45 minutes into the set. It was pure joy when 2000 people made the floor bounce to a deep cut like "Pick Up The Pieces."
The pace was excellent, he sampled songs from all over his six-decade career, and it has to be said that his band had learned Sly and Robbie's lessons well and in fact sounded more perfect than the Riddim Twins. This was a rare celebration that was a blessing to witness.