Bob Marley remains the indisputable king of reggae. In the ten years since Jamaica’s favorite musical son succumbed to the ravages of cancer, the search for a worthy successor — a “new Marley” with comparable vision, personality and musical nerve, not to mention the magic crossover touch — has yielded only flawed contenders, including Marley’s eldest son, Ziggy, a noble scion who, unfortunately, lacks his father’s charismatic authority.
But looking for a new Marley is as pointless as looking for a new Dylan or Hendrix. Bob Marley, like those other two originals, revolutionized pop music in his own singular image, transforming a regional mutant product of Caribbean rhythm, American R&B and African mysticism into a personalized vehicle for spiritual communion, social argument and musical daring. Others, including his fellow founding Wailers, Neville Livingston (a.k.a. Bunny Wailer) and the late Peter Tosh, were party to his revolution. Yet it was Marley, with his rootsy integrity and mainstream-pop savvy, who largely initiated and greatly accelerated reggae’s coming of age as a music of the world, as opposed to simply world music. He still casts a long shadow over reggae because his peers and disciples can still find much to love, and learn from, in his legacy.
Talkin’ Blues is a crucial addition to that legacy. Like many posthumous collections, the album is a motley assemblage of previously unissued concert recordings and studio outtakes, linked by short excerpts from a 1975 Marley interview conducted by Jamaican journalist Dermot Hussey. But the live material’s uncompromised physical kick and the narrative unity provided by the interview segments belie the album’s patchwork makeup. (Listeners who have trouble deciphering Marley’s tapioca-thick patois can order a free transcription of the interview from Island.)
Actually, the seven tracks taken from the Wailers’ legendary October 1973 radio broadcast on KSAN, in San Francisco, are sufficient cause to celebrate. These vintage, deliciously raw performances, which feature Tosh and noted Jamaican vocalist Joe Higgs (subbing for Bunny Wailer, who had just quit the band), are as vital as those on the epochal 1975 album Live! and capture Marley’s riddim rebellion at a critical juncture, just as he began to take Babylon by storm.
The light, scattered applause on the KSAN tracks (there are only half a dozen people in the studio audience) lends an air of poignant, familial intimacy to the proceedings. The haunting clarity with which Tosh and Higgs raise their voices in tortured harmony on the “weepin’ and a-wailin'” chorus of “Burnin’ and Loot-in'” evokes images of a destitute family crying in the darkness of a Kingston tenement yard. On that tune, and on ferocious readings of “Slave Driver” and “Get Up Stand Up” from the same session, Marley’s voice shivers with tangible fear and wounded defiance, echoed by the argumentative chatter of Tosh’s rhythm guitar, keyboardist Earl “Wire” Lindo’s percolating clavinet and the angry drive of the sibling bass-drums backfield, Aston “Familyman” Barrett and his brother Carlton.
The result is 100-proof rebel music, bristling with the same aggressive spirit and embattled dignity that distinguished the original Wailers’ classic Jamaican singles of the late Sixties and early Seventies. One Talkin’ Blues number, “Walk the Proud Land,” dates back even further. First issued in the mid-Sixties as “Rude Boy,” a brisk, ska street-punk anthem, the song is slowed down and torched Chicago-soul-style here, with Marley, Tosh and Higgs singing like a rougher, Trenchtown version of the Impressions. Higgs, who was the Wailers’ harmony coach in their schoolyard days, lends a strong Smokey Robinson flavor to “Slave Driver” with his powerful falsetto while Tosh takes a smoldering vocal turn of his own on “You Can’t Blame the Youth,” a sardonic black man’s view of revisionist white history (“You teach the youths about the pirate Morgan/And you said he was a very great man”).
The KSAN recordings effectively marked the end of Marley and the Wailers’ first golden era. Within weeks, Tosh and Higgs were gone and Marley hit the crossover trail, enriching his sound with bluesy lead guitar, fuller keyboards and the I-Threes’ hearty female hosannas — all elements that characterized later albums like Natty Dread, from 1974. The alternate takes of “Talkin’ Blues” and “Bend Down Low” that appear on the new album are a little less polished than the versions on Natty Dread but no less fun. More interesting, though, is an unfinished song from those sessions, “Ama-Do,” a racy love song that juxtaposes corny lovey-dovey clichés with the I-Threes’ saucy rejoinder “Do it with your bad self!”
The final track on Talkin’ Blues — a searing, previously unissued version of “I Shot the Sheriff,” recorded during the historic 1975 London shows that yielded the Live! album — simply reaffirms everything that’s already been said and written about Marley’s mid-Seventies concert prowess. He is in full warrior vocal rapture here, the band stoking the rhythm fire underneath him with hardened aplomb. Though not as revelatory as the KSAN material, it is a fitting finale to this album, vivid proof not only of Marley’s commanding stage presence but of the long distance he’d come in so short a time. In less than two years, Bob Marley had changed the face and future of reggae. Talkin’ Blues is the sound of those changes in motion. It is also a tribute befitting a king.