Rasta Man Down by the River 

Temperatures -- and spirits -- soar at Humboldt's annual Reggae on the River festival.

Rastafari stands alone!!! It was a mighty utterance, coming from one of reggae's hottest artists, delivered at the conclusion of a mid-August day that saw blazing 108-degree heat, as well as blazing performances from some of Jah's most faithful disciples in front of an irie crowd totaling twenty-thousand-plus.

The quote comes from "Welcome to Jamrock," the current smash from Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley that has revitalized modern reggae by integrating dancehall's edgy attitude with the traditional sensibilities of the roots music popular two decades ago. Damian -- whose dad, indeed, is none other than Robert Nesta Marley -- occupied the headlining Saturday slot at Reggae on the River, the legendary festival that, for the last 22 years, has brought Jah love and positive vibrations to Humboldt County, deep in the heart of the California marijuana-cultivating motherlode known as the "Emerald Triangle," about a six-hour drive from the Bay Area.

Heads are still buzzing about Jr. Gong's performance. Reggae's reigning young lion made his case for his late father's regal throne, stalking the stage like the ubiquitous Conquering Lion, waist-length dreadlocks flying through the air, spitting out hardcore conscious lyrics with rapid-fire precision. The crowd went nuts, including DJ Smoky of the Shattuck Down Low's weekly reggae night King of Kings, who brought his three-year-old daughter up to "Reggae" (as it's colloquially known). "When Jr. Gong came on, that was some serious magic," he declared. "When an artist has one big hit, I'm always interested to see how they pull it off." Damian pulled it off by blasting through Bob's classic "Could You Be Loved" before segueing into the equally ubiquitous "Jamrock" bassline -- Smoky gave it an enthusiastic A+.

Child, the mixtape maven of Oakland's Project Groundation Massive, had similar platitudes: Noting that he isn't the kind of guy to jock a trendy artist, he nonetheless admitted, "I thought Damian Marley really killed it ... he was an incredible performer."

Somewhat less revelatory was Damian's brother Stephen, who bears a closer resemblance to Bob but seemed uncomfortable in that towering shadow, covering several of the elder Marley's tunes (well received by the predominantly hippie crowd) but failing to make his own songs as memorable. Even more disappointing was I-Wayne, the super-hyped neo-roots star riding his debut release, Lava Ground. Smoky observed that I-Wayne never really looked comfortable onstage, and though he performed decent renditions of his hits "Can't Satisfy Her" and "Living in Love," his anti-abortion tune "Don't Worry" didn't exactly win the hearts of the liberated, progressive women in attendance.

I-Wayne may not have lived up to his advance billing, but there were so many great performances during the festival's three days, it didn't matter. Saturday night, dancehall veterans Buju Banton and Tony Rebel both delivered long, satisfying performances; earlier in the afternoon, local gal Destani Wolf murdered the reggae standard "No No No" during O-Maya's set. Backed by the Reggae Angels, Junior Reid was the star of Friday's show, setting a proper Rasta tone with a rundown of selected highlights from his twenty-year career, topped off by "Mashing Up da World." Other performers that day included the Bay Area's own Lyrics Born and Michael Franti, ex-Pharcyde member Tre Hardson, and Haitian diva Emeline Michel.

Sunday's closing address was delivered by Alpha Blondy, who opened with a nice version of "Jerusalem" (You can see Christians, Muslims, and Jews praying together in harmony), but wasn't nearly as fiery as Anthony B, a dynamo who rarely stood still for more than a few seconds. The controversial author of "Fire Pon Rome" was surprisingly charismatic, despite his often heavy-handed lyrics, and his ninety-minute set (which peaked with "Good Cop") ended too soon.

More highlights: Richie Spice's "Marijuana Pon de Corner" went over big with the Humboldt massive -- a cloud of smoke visible in neighboring Mendocino County wafted into the air as Spice declared, It's the healing of the nation. And those who braved the withering midday heat were treated to a breakout performance by practically unknown Senegalese hip-hop trio Daara J, who proved as fluid with ragga styles as with Wolof rap. Prancing around in colorful traditional full-length robes, they looked like griots from another time, except for their Nike basketball sneakers. Ozomatli provided even more global groove: The Latin hip-hop and worldbeat kings showed their mastery of crowd control, handling the ocean of bodies with ease while displaying impressive musicianship to boot.

The entire concert was broadcast live on a local radio station, which meant that if you were away from the stage, you didn't have to miss a beat. That was welcome news for all the folks who camped out (one East Bay contingent assembled a geodesic dome on-site), allowing them to retreat to their shelters or splash around in the Eel River until the temperatures cooled off a bit.

About the heat: stifling -- 103 in the shade, actually, according to a parking-lot attendant who called himself Benbow Bob (although he's actually from Chico). That's just too damn hot. Some folks, C2tE included, actually took to the air-conditioned shuttle buses just to escape the sun's wrath, which made Silly Putty out of sunscreen and resulted in dozens of cases of heatstroke. As beverage concessions manager Steve Landry reported, approximately 90,000 bottles of water were purchased during the festival, along with 250 kegs of beer and 500 gallons of "Hurricane mix," a blend of fruit juice and rum.

Still, though three days of nonstop music in sweltering heat can get a little intense, many of those 20,000 revelers (and 2,500 volunteers) will be back again next year. And that's the big news: There will, in fact, be a next year. Although this specific campsite lease was not renewed -- leading to rumors that the festival's future was in jeopardy -- days before the event, it was announced that a new site was found just down the river from the old one. Carol Bruno (of festival founder People Productions) says that the changes are exciting, but says she has no plans to drastically alter the event's "natural mystical feeling" or community vibe. She also notes that the event "is the most important annual fund-raiser in rural Humboldt," benefiting schools, fire departments, local businesses, and the Mateel Community Center (not to mention, one suspects, local herb growers).

In any event, Reggae on the River's continuation is welcome news indeed; these days, we need all the natural mysticism we can get.


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