Israel Vibration: Ital and Vital in Central Park
“I’m in a mellow mellow mellow mellow mellow mood!” Cecil “Skelly” Spence of Israel Vibration insisted Sunday evening at Central Park Summerstage. He’d just sung an entire seventeen-song set with the ageless roots reggae band, standing on crutches and doing a nifty little dance a little earlier, and the rail-thin singer was still wired. Maybe it was all of the “brain food” that the band celebrated throughout their final song, Red Eyes. You know, the healing of the nation, found on the grave of King Solomon, yadda yadda. There was a lot of that wafting through the crowd, the arena slowly filling up as the clouds overhead kept the sun from baking the astroturf.
Israel Vibration released their first single, Why Worry – the warmly soul-tinged opening song from their set – in 1977, the trio of Spence, Lascelle “Wiss” Bulgin and the sorely missed Albert “Apple Gabriel” Craig having first joined their voices at a sanitarium for Jamaican youth stricken with polio. What’s just as heartwarming as their backstory at this point in time is that their songs, and their performance, are just as strong now as they were then. Craig’s place was taken by a couple of women singing harmonies who did double duty covering for Skelly and Wiss’ characteristically wavery voices, while the tremendous Roots Radics played inspired, terse, sometimes majestic tracks behind them. Flabba Holt doesn’t look very flabba these days, a lot closer in size to his tiny Steinberger bass, but his basslines were still fat and propulsive. The band’s excellent soul and blues-influenced guitarist didn’t play a single heavy metal lick all afternoon, their keyboardist switching expertly between a million perfectly chosen patches, from organ, to melodica, to accordion, along with the expected banks of phony, synthesized brass. And even that was a fair approximation of the real thing.
Israel Vibration’s songs don’t just pay lip service to the usual roots reggae tropes: these guys were there when Rastas in Jamaica were treated like young black and latino men are today in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Those songs’ edge, and bite, and inescapable social awareness reflect the struggles, physical and otherwise, that these musicians faced back when reggae was revolutionary music scorned by the upper classes. They followed their opening track with Feeling Irie, which turned into a pretty epic fail as a singalong. So Wiss took lead vocals on the bitter Mr. Consular Man, a chronicle of being grilled by suspicious immigration officials. They picked up the pace a little with another relatively recent minor-key number, Hard Road to Follow, then Skelly took over the mic for Ball of Fire, its warm, classic late 60s/early 70s vibe contrasting with its grim, apocalyptic lyrics. An even more recent song sent a tepidly received shout-out to all five boroughs of New York; they followed that with a sweeping version of their big 90s hit Jailhouse Rocking, complete with Arabic guitar licks and melodica keyboards.
Skelly sang another pair of warmly attractive songs with grim lyrics, Living on Borrowed Time and Back Staba. Wiss followed with their more pensive 1990 hit Far Away and then another Jailhouse Rocking track, Cool and Calm as Skelly scooted around the stage a little on his crutches. They evoked early Toots & the Maytals with another sarcastic if bubbly new song, My Master’s Will, a metaphorically loaded servant’s tale, following with the defiant Never Gonna Hurt Me Again and then Vultures. As they reached the end of the set, they let the vibe go more carefree with a full-length version of their biggest 1970s hit, The Same Song. This band reputedly slayed at Sumfest this year; much as a lot of the crowd, particularly the Jamaican contingent, had come out for a nostalgia fix, Israel Vibration are far, far away from turning into a nostalgia act like so many of their contemporaries.