Island is moving back into reggae, and intelligently, not with John Holt/Ken Boothe pop stuff but with roots music like Winston Rodney’s Burning Spear, whose primitive, chant-based, two-chord songs deal with the essence of Rastafarian experience. The only question is, who in America knows enough to really appreciate it? Whom does Island expect to buy records like this?
The title tune is a microcosm of the problem. The rhythm is compelling but the brass is out of tune, countryman style. As for the words — how much do you know about Marcus Garvey and his prophecy? Unless you’re really familiar with Jamaican culture, the words simply won’t make sense. Fortunately, the group’s singing and the incredible backup by members of Jamaica’s top studio band, the Soul Syndicate, make the sound itself compelling. Melodies like “Tradition,” with its three-part “doot doot” hook, or the brooding, hypnotic “Slavery Days” might even get on the radio, but it’s hardly the place for novices to begin listening.
Still, as little sense as releasing Marcus Garvey in America seems to make, not releasing Live! makes less. Ostensibly, the reasons are that Live! is not a top-notch Wailers set and that the album would hurt sales of the rest of the group’s catalog. The two lines of thinking are obviously contradictory. While Live! may not be as good as the set I saw at the 30,000-seat National Stadium in Kingston, it’s a tossup whether this record or Natty Dread is better. The audience response is electrifying and both the Wailers and the I Threes vocalists are in top form. All of these songs are available elsewhere but Live! is essential listening for the growing Wailers cult. As one of the best live albums ever, it should at least have been released on the Antilles budget series.