This last Saturday night certainly did not lack live music options. In addition to the Boise Music Festival, Neurolux, the Venue and the Red Room all scheduled promising shows. However, with all due respect to the bands who played those shows, I had absolutely no trouble picking the one to check out.
For those of you who don't know who Toots and the Maytals are, they're almost synonymous with reggae. I'm not exaggerating: their 1968 song, "Do the Reggay," helped give the music its name. They recorded their early stuff with legendary producer Leslie Kong, who also produced records for Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker and Bob Marley. Two of their songs, "Sweet and Dandy" and "Pressure Drop," appeared on the soundtrack to the 1972 film The Harder They Come, which made reggae popular in the United States. They've had their songs covered by The Clash and The Specials, among many others. Robert Christgau once called Toots Hibbert "the nearest thing to Otis Redding left on the planet."
In short, this show was a chance to see A LIVING LEGEND. And the tickets only cost $21 (plus the usual bullshit fees). I'd have given a kidney to have seen this.
Most likely due to the Boise Music Festival, attendance for this show was ridiculously low. I can't complain too much, though, considering that it gave me the chance to go down into the pit without feeling like a sardine. Also, I took heart in the wide age range of the audience. It made me especially glad to see folks who had brought their kids along. That's raising 'em right, I thought.
Local reggae group Voice of Reason opened the show and delivered a solid if unspectacular set. Of course, that was probably the idea: to acclimate the crowd and get them warmed up for the headliner. The (white, American) frontman played some nice, restrained guitar and didn't sound too ridiculous singing in a Jamaican accent. The bassist and drummer knew enough to always make their chops serve the groove. The saxophone, trumpet and trombone players all got off at least one good jazzy solo apiece but didn't get too fancy or obtrusive otherwise. Their original songs shrewdly borrowed from old-school reggae (one song lifted the intro from Culture's "See Them A Come") and then went off in their own directions.
Not long after Voice of Reason wrapped up, Toots and the Maytals took the stage. The crowd roared as Toots Hibbert stepped out wearing shades, a black bandanna, a black leather vest, black leather pants and gleaming black dress shoes. Nearly everyone (yes, even I) moved and sang along as Toots and his seven-person band played a selection of his classic material: "Pomp and Pride," "Time Tough," "Pressure Drop," "Bam Bam," "Funky Kingston" (possibly my favorite performance of the night--tough as hell), "Monkey Man." Listening to these songs and watching the stage act, it occurred to me how strongly the Maytals were/are influenced by American music--blues, R&B, soul, gospel. The lead guitarist even gave a Star Time-esque introduction ("Ladies and Gentlmen, please welcome to the stage...") before Toots came out.
Throughout the set, the rubbery bass and the rock-steady drumming served as the platform for the sweet harmonies, the alternately horn-like and Booker T.-esque keyboard parts and the fiery guitar solos. Toots Hibbert commanded attention just by walking around the stage and letting his singing speak for itself (though he did break out some nifty footwork at the end). His voice showed a little bit of wear and tear, as voices usually will over the course of a 50-year career in music, but it still retained plenty of grit, guts and soul.
Toots got to show just how well his voice has held up at the encore. "STICK IT UP MISTER!" he boomed out, and the band launched into what may be my favorite Maytals song, the prison tale "54-46 That's My Number." I liked how he chose to close out the night with a medley of this tune (which he recorded soon after his 18-month bit for marijuana possession) and a full-throttle gospel/ska rave-up. "I was oppressed," he seemed to say, "but now I'm free and doing what I love." I don't know if the other folks in the audience gave much thought to the possible implications of this number; they might've been too busy dancing, raising up their right hands, waving them in the air and giving it to Toots one, two, three, four, ten, eleven times (he did a double take after that last one).
"Everybody makes me feel so good," he said earlier in the show. The feeling was mutual.
You can find info on Voice of Reason and Toots and the Maytals on Facebook and elsewhere online.