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Bob Marley: Wollman Skating Rink, New York NY Mitchell Cohen, Phonograph Record, July 1975
IT WAS THE first one of those muggy nights this season, when the air is so close it cuts down your breathing, that Bob Marley brought his Wailers to town for an outdoor concert. The atmosphere seemed appropriate in many ways: the humidity, the sweat of thousands of bodies brought together, is what the Wailers' brand of reggae feeds on. It's body heat, warm weather music, sensuous and smoldering, with a violent tension just barely hidden beneath the deceptively simple surface. This is a sound that could set inner cities on flame, and the multi-racial, nearly sold-out audience was feeling its strength by the end of the set, chanting in unison, "Don't give up the fight!" as Marley shook his dreadlocks and the band kept up that ominously persistent rhythm. Seeing the Wailers live made one wonder once again why Jamaican reggae is so slow to catch a fire in the States. It's so passionate, so infectious and so unaffected that in some sense it is where rock'n'roll was two decades ago; danceable music with an underlying social comment. Reggae achieves the kind of synthesis that I usually think unsustainable: politically explicit music that also works as body music; and Marley is at its dramatic center. His set built slowly, accumulating power as it went on. The Wailers, consisting of the band that played and including two women singers, make small variations seem like major shifts in direction, and it's the relatively minimal music that allows this to occur: the sparse beat kept so steadily by the Anderson [Barrett – RBP ed] brothers rhythm section, the scratchy chording, the simple keyboard patterns. By the third or fourth song, ‘Kinky Reggae’, Marley began to loosen up, doing a sloppy, rambling dance across the stage, flapping his arms and moving his head, and the crowd began to sense that something special was in the thick New York City air. After a ballad, ‘Midnight River’, the Wailers went into the bulk of their show, which relied on a large percentage of the tracks from their landmark Natty Dread album, performing all of side one, starting with an invitation to ‘Lively Up Yourself’. The strength of Marley's music is in its righteous, revolutionary force combined with a recognition that we can dance in the midst of repression, and this strength was communicated in person. The anger of ‘Them Belly Full’ and ‘3 O'Clock Roadblock’ doesn't prevent Marley from celebrating human energy, from telling his listeners to "Forget your troubles and dance," not meaning "forget," of course, but just the opposite: keep them in mind, but don't let them keep you down. The set ended with ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ in a more harsh, adamant version than we know courtesy of Eric Clapton, and the encore was ‘Talkin' Blues’ followed by the song that had the crowd up on its feet, singing assertive phrases with Marley. The Wailers play crisp, provocative music, but Marley is an imposing figure, along with Toots Hibbert, reggae's most charismatic vocalist. One wasn't prepared, however, for his stage presence, his shortcuts of language, his uninhibited movement. Marley's music sinks into you, driven by committment and beat, and it should be heard by the largest possible number of people. If the Wailers visit your area, don't dare miss them. Reggae is the bona fide rebel music, and Bob Morley is a genuine rock hero.
© Mitchell Cohen, 1975
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