Sly and Robbie played a deep, purist set of roots reggae grooves at Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn yesterday, arguably the highlight of an otherwise lacklustre, ostensibly “R&B” themed weekly summer series booked by BAM. What kind of axe does legendary roots reggae bassist Robbie Shakespeare play? A standard issue Fender Jazz model. He stuck to the hooks he’s famous for, holding down the low end, a couple of times reaching down for boomy chords during one dub interlude. No slapping, no Jaco-style showboating, just soul. Behind his drum kit, Dunbar was much the same. He kept the one-drop going, having fun during the dub sections firing off hypnotic, steady volleys of eighth notes rather than any kind of gratuitous showmanship. No wonder these guys are considered one of the greatest rhythm sections ever.
They opened with a long series of instrumentals, backing a simple, direct, rock-solid trio of musicians: a trombonist who doubled on vocals and dancehall toasting, harmonizing with the keyboardist and edgy guitarist who contributed a single aching, searing, sustain-driven solo early in the set. They went down into dub a lot, oldschool style, dropping instruments out of the mix and back in again, pushing the echo fader up and down again, the keyboardist adding the occasionally blippy flourish. The band stuck mostly with minor keys, enhancing the dark, hypnotic ambience. The best of the early grooves first sounded like a dub of Burning Spear’s Old Marcus Garvey but then turned out to be On Broadway: it’s amazing how far you can get with just two chords. The biggest hit with the crowd was a long, murky jam on Dawn Penn’s reggae noir hit No, No, No. The high point of the show, with its gorgeous bassline, was a dub take on Freddie McGregor’s Revolution.
Third World’s 66-year-old frontman Bunny Rugs, who spent five years driving a cab in Brooklyn before joining that band, came up to sing for the remainder of the show. Third World were in the studio with Gregory Isaacs during his last session, so they played Night Nurse as a tribute to the late crooner. Rumors of War morphed into a scattering of bits and pieces from Third World hits like Reggae Ambassadors, Now That We’ve Found Love and Committed. Surreal moments abounded.
Bunny Rugs told the crowd that since he’d forgotten the lyrics to a number from his solo album, he was going to make some up on the spot, but that didn’t matter, he explained, since “Di riddim wicked!” The second he sang the line “this chair is empty now,” a concertgoer abruptly stood up from his and left it for someone else – thanks, guy! In the middle of a long, dissociative cover of Randy Newman’s Baltimore, Bunny Rugs turned “hooker on the corner” into “cop around the corner” and then went off on a long, rambling shout-out to Jamaica, where he, Sly and Robbie were when all this stuff gained critical mass. His comment about the music reaching a global audience without any help from big corporations was wrong. Columbia Records spent a fortune promoting Bob Marley, just not when he was alive. The crowd reflected how far reggae has come since it was the first world’s favorite esoterica: daycamp kids and their caretakers in the back, a sleepy lunchtime office crowd nodding their heads and swaying in unison, with the hippies and a small but vocal Jamdown posse up front. For a country of 144 square miles, at least for a couple of decades, they turned out more great musicians per capita than anywhere else in the world.