Niceness. In a word, that about sums up the 23rd edition of Reggae on the River, a concert held on the banks of the Eel River in Humboldt County, which has become not just an event, but a cultural institution. Every year, the festival (which took place August 4-6) keeps growing.
Two decades after debuting with a one-day show featuring the Itals and the Meditations, it's become a three-day extravaganza, incorporating Burning Man-esque tribalism with Rastafarian overtones, topped off by a healthy dose of New Age holisticness and laid-back, Northern California vibes from the heart of the marijuana-cultivating Emerald Triangle region. Not surprisingly, Marlon Asher's "Ganja Farmer" became this year's unofficial anthem, being frequently played by festival selectas during sound system interludes.
KPFA's Weyland Southon estimates he's attended nine or ten of the festivals. He briefly stopped coming in the '90s after being turned off by ravelike late-night house music blasting out of portable generators, yet in recent years he's witnessed a roots resurgence, as well as a growing tolerance for rap. "I can remember when people got booed for playing hip-hop" at their campsites, he says, yet that wasn't the case this year.
The big news this year was the expanded facilities, which spilled over from the original site of French's Camp to the adjoining Dimmick Ranch, accommodating thirty thousand people ten thousand more than last year. For the most part, Reggae flowed as smoothly as the river itself, overcoming both logistical issues and sweltering heat. A radio simulcast made it easy for folks to stay in tune with the concert, even while relaxing at their camping sites or splashing down the river in an inner tube.
The concert itself may have only been half the story of Reggae on the River; still, the featured artists were a compelling mix of up-and-coming musicians and established stars, representing not only reggae's roots and dancehall branches, but also world music and conscious rap. In a pre-show press conference, dancehall don Sean Paul noted that he first appeared at the event four years ago as a relative unknown; it's entirely possible that this year's support acts including Jamaican crooner Gyptian, Virgin Islands songstress Dezarie, Somali MC and poet K'Naan, and North Bay rap-reggae artist Wisdom will one day headline future festivals.
Wisdom marked his eighteenth festival appearance by performing and hosting the proceedings. Backstage, he, too, noted that hip-hop and dancehall have been gradually more accepted as the event has evolved. "That's helped reggae stay relevant, especially with young people," he says.
Even so, roots reggae remains the festival's predominant vibe, as evidenced by the fact that Sean Paul's lackluster Friday night performance failed to generate any real sparks, despite chart-topping hits like "We Be Burnin'" and "Temperature." Technical difficulties accounted for some of the disappointment, yet there were also whispers that Paul's slick style was too chauvinistic for the audience, who weren't feeling the booty-girl dancers he brought. Any grumbles were quickly erased by Saturday evening's concert, which restored Reggae on the River's rep as America's premier reggae showcase.
An undeniably culturally authentic tone was set by reggae godfathers Sly & Robbie, performing a set of classic Black Uhuru material featuring singer Don Carlos. Robbie in particular was fascinating to watch as he casually fingered his bass, effortlessly generating the deep low-end resonance he's famous for. Next, the Heavyweight Dub Champion collective extended the echoing, reverberating grooves well past midnight, presenting a circuslike audiovisual spectacle featuring rap MCs and fire-twirling dancers, which set the stage for Sizzla's triumphant headlining slot.
The turban-sporting, Bobo Ashanti sing-jay made a seriously dread musical and cultural statement, delivering an energetic, fiery performance while freely mixing roots attitude with dancehall riddims. Alternating rapid-fire lyrics with a soothing falsetto, he controlled the crowd with considerable stage presence. Sizzla ran through favorites like "Dem Ah Try a Ting" and "Be Strong" as if he were on a mission to claim the title of dancehall king from all pretenders; by the time he finished, just shy of 3 a.m., the crown was his.
Sunday night's show was mellower in tone, yet didn't lack for star power, with performances by the one remaining original Wailer and two of Bob Marley's children. Stephen Marley played an obligatory, but not especially memorable, set of his dad's hits including "No Woman No Cry," while his brother Ziggy showcased impressive original material from his recent album Dragonfly. The whole shebang came to a close with an appearance by the venerable Bunny Wailer, who appeared onstage in a white-on-white ensemble topped off by a cape and big floppy red, gold, and green hat. Bunny's timeless classics "Cool Runnings," "Ballroom Floor," and "Rise and Shine" conveyed a liberating message of peace, love, and unity which is essentially what Reggae on the River is about. That and niceness, seen?
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