Appellate Judge Dave Ryan be tha natty dread mon! All praise to Jah!
River? Check. Reggae? Check. Okay—let's party!
Every year (well, every year since 1984) a big reggae festival has been held in that hotbed of reggae—Humboldt County, California. Originally started as a fundraiser for a local community center that had been damaged by a fire, the Reggae on the River concert has grown into a three-day "Woodstock of Reggae" on the banks of the Eel River, nestled among the majestic redwood forests of coastal Northern California. In 2003, the festival celebrated its 20th iteration. To mark the event, Sanctuary Records has issued a two-disc collection—one disc covers the history of the event, one covers the highlights of the three-day 20th concert itself. For fans of reggae, this one's a no-brainer.
Facts of the Case
Although its roots stretch back far into the past, back to the music of Africa as brought to the New World by the many slaves forcibly relocated there, reggae as we know it today is actually a fairly young genre of music. Native to the Caribbean island of Jamaica, reggae was derived from ska music, a genre that was itself a Caribbeanized version of American—specifically New Orleans—rhythm and blues music. The first recognizable reggae artists started recording in the mid-'60s, but the genre didn't have its first real breakout star until the heyday of a dreadlocked Rastafarian named Robert Nesta Marley. Bob Marley—a truly transcendent musician—brought the entire genre to new heights, and, along with contemporaries such as Toots and the Maytals, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, and Burning Spear, helped to define "reggae music" as we now know it.
Today, reggae is only increasing in popularity, as the genre spawns new, unique sub-genres such as dancehall, soca, and rocksteady. Artists such as Shaggy can be found near the top of the album and single charts these days. Even non-reggae artists, such as the Police and Joe Jackson, bring reggae elements into their more rock-oriented fare. Plus, given the youth of the genre, new artists can continue to draw inspiration from the reggae pioneers, who continue to record new music to this day.
Reggae is a very bass-driven style of music; it's usually instantly identifiable from the staccato guitar riffs that punctuate the rhythmic and repetitive melodic bass lines. It's also one of the most relentlessly upbeat forms of popular music currently performed—and I'm even including Christian rock in that assessment. Even the angry, political reggae songs find ways to be positive. There's an undeniable marijuana connection with the music, as well—something that stems from the music's close association with the Rastafarian religion.
Now, boys and girls…what social group may just be particularly attuned to danceable music that has a relentlessly positive message and that practically begs for heavy pot use?
You guessed it—hippies!!!
And so, it shouldn't come as any real surprise that one of the better reggae festivals in the country takes place in one of the last bastions of hippiedom, the redwood-forest area of NoCal. Now, you too can experience the Reggae on the River festival in the comfort of your own home, without having to worry about using Porta-Potties or smelling like patchouli oil for weeks afterwards.
Gratuitous hippie-mocking aside, this is a stellar collection of reggae music for fans. Disc One ("The Story") contains an hour-long documentary on the 2003 festival, covering every aspect of the staging of this three-day event. Including those aforementioned Porta-Potties. (We get to see a quick interview with the guy who owns—and services—all the sanitary facilities on the festival grounds.) The star of this segment is the property's current owner, a sweet older widow who seems like just the nicest person. Not the type you'd at all expect to have a bunch of hippies and Jamaicans over to the house once a year—but nice enough to make them all feel welcome if they do show up.
But the highlight of the set—and the main reason for purchasing the disc—is Disc Two ("The Show"). This is a collection of highlights from the 2003 festival's three days of musical performances. It's a solid lineup of great reggae acts old and new, featuring no fewer than three Marleys. (Bob had a lot of kids, you see. A lot of kids.)
In the "veteran" category, we get the de facto headliners of the show, Third World and Toots and the Maytals. Each delivers one of their classic numbers, "96 Degrees in the Shade" and "54-46 Was My Number" respectively. Both artists reflect the R&B roots of reggae; Toots Hibbard has been compared to Otis Redding and Ray Charles, as a matter of fact. ("54-46 Was My Number" sounds a heck of a lot like Ray's "What'd I Say?")
However, a good number of newer groups, plus groups from some of the offshoots of reggae, are also present, making the disc a fantastic sampler of the genre. Here's a list of the featured artists:
A pretty eclectic group, all things considered. A couple of these artists aren't really known as true reggae acts—for example, Mtukudzi is from Zimbabwe; his music is a blend of many African and Caribbean styles. But nonetheless he fits right in with the vibe of the show. Some astute music fans may remember multi-instrumentalist David Lindley as one of the architects of the "California Sound" in the 1970s—he worked extensively with Jackson Browne, and performed on a number of other significant albums in that era (for, among others, Warren Zevon, David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Linda Ronstadt).
Okay, so the music is great—but how about the disc?
The concert is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format, with—hold on to your seats—multiple camera angles available. (This feature of the DVD format is so rarely implemented that I had begun to think it didn't really exist…) Okay, it's really only two angles—a "director's edit" that's a typical multicamera presentation and a straight single-camera wide shot of the full stage—but it's still a nice touch.
Sound is exemplary—you have a choice between an extremely well-done 5.1 surround track or a standard 2.0 stereo track. Pick the surround, if you've got the equipment: it's a nice, full soundstage with good clarity and crispness, and really brings the concert to life.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Only a handful of extras are provided—some artists biographies a couple of still-shot reels, and so forth. And poor Oliver Mtukudzi's biography isn't even right—his entry mistakenly has the text of the Michael Franti & Spearhead bio. (On the other hand, the biography pages have direct menu links to the artist's song in the main program, a very nice feature.)
And while I did enjoy the documentary about the festival on Disc One, I would have preferred to have an extra disc full of performances. This was, after all, a three-day concert. There shouldn't have been any problem getting another couple of hours' worth of material for release.
Reggae is a fun, enjoyable music genre that really should be more popular than it already is today. Reggae on the River is a great introduction for those new to the music, providing the perfect Whitman's Sampler of contemporary reggae acts in a single performance disc. Sanctuary should definitely be applauded for releasing this disc, which is high-quality from both a content and a technical perspective. Take another hit off the bong, my friends—and let none cry "Bogart!"
Pass the spliff. Eternal love to my brothers and sisters!
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