Review: SummerJam 2012
by Angus Taylor
REVIEW: SummerJam in Cologne, Germany 7/6-8/2012
SummerJam's 27th edition tagline is Together As One. It was reflected in this year's lineup: a study in diverse reggae extremes from commercial dancehall entertainers to Jamaican live band revivalists and chin-stroking modern roots popular in France and the USA. The old guard was represented by Burning Spear's prodigal return but it wasn't the treasure trove of underrated veterans you would find at, say, Reggae Jam. Yet in its idyllic island setting, and attracting an equally diverse crowd from all over Europe, the festival and its atmosphere is the real star.
Rabbits lollopped through the campsite; revelers swam in the lake even when it rained. A drug information bus was on hand with “intoxication glasses” that gave people the feeling of being drunk (let’s hope no one combined them with actual intoxication). At one point a nudist swimmer got out of the water to dance at the dub sound system and was busted by security – drawing protests from the mc and the phones of passersby.
Well oiled organizationally from decades of experience, the day to day running of the event went smoothly. Unusually for a reggae festival, there were zero no-shows. The one slight technical hitch was the smaller woodland situated Green Stage having a few sound problems over the weekend - with artists' vocals getting lost in the mix. On Friday, this was particularly true of the subtle voice of Kumar Bent from Raging Fyah - who nonetheless made a very impressive German debut in the sunshine [Review: Raging Fyah @ SummerJam 2012]. Likewise the uncompromising intellectual roots of St Croix’ Midnite was a little hampered by not being able to hear Vaughn Benjamin's lyrics - although he had lyrics a plenty in the press conference later [Review: Midnite @ SummerJam 2012]. With a new album due in October, The great U Roy toasted up a typically jovial performance before a beautiful oil painting of a sunset. Then the Ivory Coast's cultural and political institution, Tiken Jah Fakoly, capped the roots-music-with-a-twist of Midnite and Fyah by inviting the faithful on "a vacation to Africa" as the tones of the soukou violin wafted into the night air.
The sonically superior if less picturesque Red Stage drew the first truly huge gathering of the day for brassy US roots group SOJA (as a rule non Jamaican bands all used horns, whereas of the Jamaican acts, only Spear and Stephen Marley did). Sean Paul, still looking like Travis Bickle and wearing what appeared to be a school tie, was a stark contrast to the simultaneous seriousness of Tiken. His voice is not pleasing to hear live but he had the showmanship and the pop tunes (and, yes, a lot more women in his crowd). Dancehall fans after sweeter singing would find it in the small hours when Christopher Martin headlined the dancehall arena.
Saturday on the Green Stage saw the English arrive. The diminutive Natty continued the roots-with-a-difference theme. Dreamy lovers rock poppet Hollie Cook caught the photographers' attention with a racy outfit but the musical focus was actually her hype person Horseman who was doing both his main jobs - deejaying and playing the drums - at the same time. Again the sound obscured some of Hollie's vocals and those of Protoje, who had a Sly and Robbie bookended jam with Marseille's Dub Akom (partly because he had watched a Rockpalast German concert of Black Uhuru for inspiration and partly because he and the band hadn't rehearsed and the material was familiar to everyone involved Read: Protoje @ SummerJam Press Conference). Their rough but hardhitting showing was followed by the dapper slickness of Bermudian Collie Buddz who sounded exactly like on record: opening with Let Me Know and closing with Come Around.
On the Red Stage, Sara Lugo got up and sang Rescue Plan with her brother Tom’s group Jamaram. American progressive roots outfit Groundation were swapping time signatures in showy fashion but you cannot doubt alien-voiced singer Harrison Stafford's commitment to his performance. Then "one festival a year" Spear honoured Germany with a very relaxed but tight set. [Review: Burning Spear @ SummerJam 2012] Catching it meant missing a far bigger congregation at Beenie Man on the Green Stage but afterwards the dancehall showman gave an amusingly prickly press conference which he bossed from start to finish. He was in a hurry to get to the arena where the rockstone Assassin topped the bill.
Day three was all about the rain and the Red Stage. Sebastian Sturm (whose small size and broken voice recalled Natty) did his respectful rendition of the Twinkle Brothers Since I Throw The Comb Away. The clouds opened as J Boog crooned Let's Do It Again in breathy soul fashion. Million Stylez, never taking off his sunglasses, also made it look easy with the likes of Miss Fatty and Fade Away.
Queues for the generally efficiently run bars were heaving during Alborosie, who seemed serene and comfortable even if the band did the lion's share on certain tunes. The audience responded better to early singles like Police and Waan the Herb than his increasingly musically adventurous yet lyrically less satisfying later work. But the real highlight was when he brought Beenie Man on for one of those great festival moments - a medley of Kingston Town and Beenie's Come Again. Stephen Marley (with "Lion of Judah" on his Les Paul and fellow scion Squidly Cole on drums) sang a few jewels from his latest album. Mostly, though, it was covers of his dad: [Review: Stephen Marley @ SummerJam 2012] ending with Redemption Song as fireworks exploded like percussion in the sky.
At the airport Reggaeville met Earl Sixteen (returning from his the Green Stage spot with Dreadzone) who marvelled at the size of the crowds for Albo and Stephen and the sheer scale of the spectacle. Rototom in August has perhaps a more comprehensive line-up this year. But for both events it's less about the details and more about the vibe as a whole.