Roots Reggae Survivors Third World: Revitalized in Downtown Brooklyn
What’s the likelihood that any band from the 70s would still be any good, especially with just a few of their original members left? In the case of roots reggae band Third World, they’ve survived not only forty years in business, but also the tragic death of well-liked frontman Bunny Rugs (who was witnessed just last year by this blog taking an animated turn on vocals out in front of Sly and Robbie). But the band has soldiered on with a new singer, AJ Brown, who might have given them a shot in the arm. Their outdoor show Thursday, staged by BAM in a scruffy downtown Brooklyn park, was surprisingly energetic, unexpectedly eclectic and a lot of fun.
What amazed the crowd the most was when guitarist and founding member Stephen Coore took a turn on cello, making his way methodically through parts of a Bach invention, a handful of classic reggae themes, a verse of the Marley classic Redemption Song and a little Beethoven to cap it off. By the time he and the band – who played along perfectly – reached that point, everybody’s phone was in the air. Otherwise, intentionally or not, the rest of the set was a sort of capsule history of roots reggae. The seven-piece group went down into a handful of brief dub interludes, did a bit of Nyabinghi drumming (kicked off by a blaring prerecorded sample of a women’s chorus), played an unlikely portion of vamping classic roots grooves as well as the jazz-inflected 70s reggae-pop they’re best remembered for. The bass and drum’s one-drop grooves were solid and uncluttered, the two keyboardists – one on synthesized brass and occasional electric piano, the other on organ and string synth – stayed away from cheesy voicings for the most part, and Coore stuck mostly to rhythm as well, adding a couple of gritty, blues-infused guitar solos.
It was good to hear the band’s most politically-charged hit, 96 Degrees in the Shade, a moody look back at simmering, late 70s Kingston violence. It was even better to hear it in the shade at about twenty degrees cooler than that, along with a handful of similar, straight-up, vamping rootsy numbers. But Third World’s signature sound was always more complex than your typical two-chord roots jam, from their early days as a cover band playing American urban top 40 songs in Jamaica in the early 70s. Drawing on the jazz harmonies and ornate vocals of American acts like the Stylistics, Third World’s 70s hits and albums had a glossy sheen that stood apart from their more rustic, African-inspired brethren (and some would say, made them a lot more lightweight). But Coore and bassist Richard Daley still have their voices, joining in the harmonies of reggae-pop hits like Committed and an extended, practically straight-up disco version of their closing hit, Now That We’ve Found Love, amusingly missing a couple of cues to jump back onto a long outro – but that’s one of the reasons why reggae shows are fun.
At this point in history, roots reggae is a legacy genre, like bluegrass or Chicago blues. The people who play it either tend to be either hippies, who jam it out with mixed results, or purer-than-thou purists who play it like it’s something from a museum. It’s good to see some of the guys who were there in the beginning still playing it like their lives depended on it. Which in the case of this band is probably true. People who see them on their upcoming west coast tour might be in for a pleasant surprise.