Happy Reggae to You 

In the end, Reggae Rising proves as irie as ever.

You know the saying about smiles being contagious? Well, it's true. Smiles abounded at the first Reggae Rising festival, held August 3-5 in Humboldt County. Everywhere you went, people grinned, even the volunteers manning security checkpoints. "Happy reggae," they well-wished. Coming from the hardcore urban mentality of the city, it takes a minute before the laid-back country attitude kicks in. And then you realize, dang, these folks want you to have as good a time as they're having. If that's what being irie is all about, sign me up. For life. Seriously.

After the storm clouds of tension that'd gathered over the upstart festival's tenuous existence — it used to be called Reggae on the River until a dispute arose between former sponsors Mateel Community Center and promoters and talent bookers People Productions (see "Reggae vs. Reggae," 7/18) — the festival itself almost seemed anticlimactic.

But not quite. After starting on a spiritual high note with a Native American ceremony followed by a Nyahbinghi drum ensemble, the vibes built continuously for three straight days. A triumphant closing set by Damian Marley put an exclamation point on what up until then had been a smoothly run, highlight-filled event that lacked little, if anything, of what festivalgoers had come to expect over the past 23 years.

There was plenty of sunshine, both on- and offstage, and plenty of music from noonish until about four or five in the morning. In addition to a late-night dancehall session — a new addition this year — several impromptu sound systems tested the stamina of even the most rigorous reggae fan. The Eel River was close enough that you could frolic in the water and still hear the concert — a cool way to beat the afternoon heat, which reached the high nineties. There were massage tables, smoothie stands, and organic cotton wares. Chilling was a must, either in the concert bowl under the shade of two ginormous military-grade parachutes, or back at the campsite, where grills blazed and cold brewskis were proffered. For the laminated elite, a VIP section (another new addition) offered a full bar with video screens, and a simulcast of the concert was broadcast on a local radio station for those lounging at campgrounds far from the stage.

The festival highlights were pretty much nonstop. Even locally bred opening acts such as Luna and Moese Angel and Wisdom were tight. The veteran performers seemed to relish the chance to play their classics for an overly enthusiastic, possibly intoxicated crowd, while the relative newcomers suggested that reggae's already rich history is still being written.

Friday's lineup seemed a bit stacked, as if to ensure that the festival actually got off the ground. Current sensations Collie Budz and Fantan Mojah contributed vibrant energy, especially Mojah, who alternated serious dread Rasta anthems such as "Give Thanks and Praise" with humorous antics, and earned fat props from the Humboldt crowd by sparking a bulging spliff onstage. I missed about half of Richie Spice's set, but the half I caught was on point. This was his second time at the river, and he seemed much more comfortable this time out. It helped that the audience was more familiar with his material, which drew heavily on his most recent album, In the Streets to Africa.

Another crowd-pleaser was Anthony B, who has grown into an elder statesman of conscious reggae, though his penchant for controversial yet catchy songs such as "Fire Pon Rome" and "Police" hasn't diminished. On Friday night's closing performance, Colorado sub-bass masters Heavyweight Dub Champion mixed techno-trance with echo and reverb. Two MCs and one singer added reggae, R&B, and rap vocals, while a male and female firedancer brought a touch of sexy exotica — the woman extended her hands like Kali, the Hindu goddess whose rituals entail purification through flame.

Saturday reached critical mass with a well-received set by dancehall queen Tanya Stephens, who showcased some of her slower, more-crossover material, yet still was showered with love by her fans. Morgan Heritage went over big with "Maskal Square" and other songs as singer Peter Morgan's dreadlocks flew through the air. Sly and Robbie and the Taxi Gang were nothing short of classic, and Ziggy Marley seamlessly mixed newer material with old favorites such as "Tomorrow People" and "Look Who's Dancing."

On Sunday, Richie Stephens' off-the-Richter performance of "Should I" was audible even from nearby campsites. Later, a still-smooth Freddie McGregor played hits old and new, from "Bobby Babylon" to "Uncle Sam." Steel Pulse opened with "Rally Round the Flag," but concentrated on more recent material like "Global Warning" from its excellent African Holocaust album.

Then it was Marley time. Rapper Mr. Cheeks joined Stephen for "Iron Bars," Damian joined Stephen for "The Traffic Jam," and Damian squeezed in some Bob chestnuts between contemporary hits like "Welcome to Jamrock" and "Road to Zion." At the conclusion of Damian's performance, MC Rocky Bailey brought out People Productions' Carol Bruno to survey what she had wrought. It looked, felt, and smelled like reggae. Same as it ever was? Not exactly. But close enough. In the end, Reggae Rising proves as irie as ever.


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