Review: Toots & The Maytals @ Respect Jamaica 50th
08/04/2012 by Angus Taylor
Some of the most memorable moments so far in AEG and Copeland Forbes' ambitious Independence concert concept series have involved artists whose careers were already active in 1962. On Sunday 29th, the Indigo2 celebrated the great Ernest Ranglin, one of the architects in the blueprint for the ska, the music of independence. On Friday night, it was the turn of the roaring, soaring voice of Frederick Toots Hibbert who had his first hit with his harmony group the Maytals exactly 50 years ago.
Despite being an indubitable giant of ska and reggae there is sometimes a sense that Toots hasn't got his full dues. Rumours persist that the Maytals were Chris Blackwell's choice to be his reggae flagship on Island instead of Bob Marley. And where Bob, having parted ways with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh but kept the Wailers name, took his music to the next level, Toots' split from Jerry Matthias and Raleigh Gordon, whilst staying as the Maytals, has not yielded the same results in his own recorded output. Yet for Independence, Toots is just about to release his best album in decades, an acoustic set of covers of his classics, Unplugged on Strawberry Hill. Seeing him stand on stage, in the context of this momentous landmark for the sounds he helped popularize, promised to be a night to remember.
As compère Daddy Ernie from Choice FM pointed out, this was a family show in the mode of the Marley dates the previous week. For the opening act was Hibbert's son, Clayton Hibbert aka Junior Toots, touring his third longplayer A Little Bit Of Love - although Ernie accidentally announced him as "Junior Roots"! Backed by the UK's Dub Asante, including key local musicians Don Chandler (bass) and Henry Matic Tenyue (trombone), Junior actually started on a dancehall tip. His voice is lighter than his dad's (it does have a faintly similar grain) and his lyrics are overtly Rastafarian. He worked the crowd hard for a reaction - and eventually got it for his tracks on familiar rhythms such as Ready To Come Over (on Police In Helicopter), and a tropical flavoured cover of Toots senior's Reggae Got Soul.
The departing band's gear was swiftly and slickly swapped out as DJ Rudy Ranks continued the Hibbert theme with a Freddie McGregor special on the rhythm to the Maytals' Hold On. His selection was followed by the return of the comedian Ping Wing who, rather impressively, repeated zero material from the previous night - bar his Michael Jackson dance. At around ten Toots' band, boasting the venerable Jackie Jackson on bass and the mighty Carl Harvey on guitar took up their positions to play.
The family feel to the lineup extended beyond blood ties with a short set by one of Hibbert's backing singers - and a very talented artist in her own right - Chantelle Ernandez. Her huge voice filled the venue from off stage before her entrance in a sparkly black outfit for three songs: the highlight being the candid tale of forbidden love, Satisfaction. In the audience was Chantelle's friend, the UK based Jamaican singer Brina, as well the bassist Lloyd Parks and the soundmen Fatman and Coxsone - awaiting their scheduled friendly clash after the live gig.
The velveteen tones of Jamaican disc jockey and guest announcer Richie B warned Jamaicans of the impending Hurricane Ernesto and to get in touch with their relatives. He then announced Toots in grand style: as the holder of a record breaking 31 number ones in Jamaica plus the Order Of Distinction; as the inventor of the word "reggae"; and winner of the first Festival Song with Bam Bam (even if he did misname another hit, Funky Kingston as "Funky Town").
In many ways Toots didn't do anything much different from the shows he has been playing across the globe for years. There were no horns in his band; he still makes the musicians go impossibly fast during the middle sections of tunes like Monkey Man to get people dancing; and he still tells every audience that no one has ever "Given it to me twelve times" in the call and response to 54 46 Was My Number. But tonight everything felt fresh and ripe for the occasion. This wasn't Toots going through the motions for a bunch of backpackers and students at Koko in Camden. This was Toots celebrating and being celebrated by his country for five decades of service to its music: pushing his extraordinary voice to the limits as all around Jamaicans and non Jamaicans went crazy for his songs and the momentum of the proceedings. Fittingly, for his album release, he was handed an acoustic guitar and played a nice solo while singing Bam Bam. And rightly for the big 50th, he shared plenty of Independence music in the form of the ska hits Never Grow Old, It's You and My New Name (saying "That was a medley for Jamaica"). Backstage was Jenna Bush (daughter of the modern day monkey man George W) showing that Toots' singing really does cross any border. But for the first time in a long time at a London concert, Toots was 100% in his Jamaican context.
As the majority of the people dispersed and the crew strung up for Fatman and Coxsone to spin their tunes in the afterparty, Reggaeville chatted with Ping Wing, fresh from his fourth consecutive appearance at the venue. When asked how important comedy was in showcasing his island's culture for the 50th celebrations, the funnyman replied "Well you could see how important it was from the laughter! I am a comedian and as you know laughter is the sunshine that drives the winter away from the human face". He had this message for our readers "Ladies and Gentlemen this was a night of magnificence and stupendour. I am here at the Indigo2 and it was out of sight - dynamite."