The entire intent and purpose of Bob Marley’s recorded output would seem to be the postulation of a way in which we could all live in a semblance of peace. That may sound ridiculous, with everything the news tells us every day.
And yet, Marley’s music – born and bred and refined in Jamaica, in the midst of what amounts to a class war – continues to cross racial, class and skin color lines, in service of a naïve belief that at core, we are all human first, and everything else second.
Friday, Buffalo Place Rocks the Harbor offered us an opportunity to see the Wailers – Bob Marley’s band from the beginning, though only bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett remains from those initial days – play a full show for free.
Anyone in the region who has ever cared for the groove should’ve sat up and taken notice, and judging by the size of the crowd, most of them did. The place was packed. Not Tragically Hip packed, mind you, but packed, so that from the stage, the audience appeared to be huge.
Good vibes pervaded from the beginning, following a well-received set from our own Outer Circle Orchestra, and all the way through yet another authoritative set from Rochester’s Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, which was partially fronted by North Tonawanda native Dan Keller on guitar and vocals. (Keller let us know his mom was in attendance later in the show!)
We do need to state right away that the Wailers in 2013 is in large part a cover band, playing the music of Bob Marley. What separates the Wailers from any other tribute ensemble?
Well, the fact that bassist Barrett is there makes far more of a difference than one might imagine. In many bands, the bass player might be the guy that would be most easily replaced.
In the Wailers, the bass player was the second most important member of the band, after the singer/songwriter/frontman Marley himself .
Barrett ran the show Friday from his perch right next to the drummer and adjacent to his son, Wade Barrett. He was on Friday just as he is on Marley albums like “Exodus” and “Uprising” – the heartbeat of the Wailers.
The band took to the stage with a vibrant version of Marley’s “So Much Trouble in the World,” and then played a short set of songs from Marley’s later album “Uprising.”
Next they broke into a set that emphasized the hits and had the crowd moving in reggae lockstep and singing along whenever singer Keith Sterling – a Jamaican-born singer who covers Marley as if born to the task – stuck the microphone in their general direction.
A midset highlight was certainly the “Exodus” track “Guiltiness,” one of the many trenchant Marley anthems that deal with the issues of class, race and religion as if they were all elements of the same entity.
Man, these guys laid it down, particularly Barrett, who simply put his head down and dug into the groove with drummer “Drummie” Zeb.
This in itself was a lesson in groove, and the assembled fans responded as if they’d been given personal direction by Barrett.
Things went on like that all night, as the Wailers tore through a catalog of inspiring and anthemic Marley tunes like “Rastaman Vibration.” When they played “Is This Love?” the majority of the audience was singing along in a rather frantic mode.
Opener Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad all but tore Canalside down with a set that was fiery and passionate and the equal of the headlining act – notably, the very band, in name at least, that created the very form GPGDS works within.
That is not to suggest that this quintet is attempting to ape the moves of its forebears. Rather, GPGDS employs reggae as a groove-centric home base, and then writes super hooky pop tunes around those grooves. As members of the Wailers watched approvingly from the wings, Giant Panda proved that Western New Yorkers can play reggae with conviction and authority.