NIAGARA FALLS – If Jamaica were to establish a “Mount Reggaemore” to immortalize the founding forces behind its most famous musical form, there would most certainly be a place for the face of Frederick “Toots” Hibbert.
As the island nation celebrates 50 years of independence this year, Hibbert likewise marks a half-century as a recording artist with recent releases of a star-studded documentary, “Reggae Got Soul” and accompanying album “Unplugged on Strawberry Hill,” and bringing his first acoustic live show to a reportedly sold-out but actually three-quarters full Seneca Niagara Bear’s Den Showroom on Friday night– the second stop on a 20-city American tour backed by a light, four-piece version of his Maytals. The toasting was mutual between the legend and his adoring audience during an easy-skankin’ evening that stretched well beyond the standard casino set time of 90 minutes, as a happy Hibbert proved beyond any doubt that at age 66, he’s still got it – big time.
Hibbert’s version of “it” infused slower American soul sounds into the excitable ska scene that exploded with Jamaica’s independence, using his unmistakable voice – at once rough and smooth and strong, equally forceful and graceful – to speak simply from the standpoint of a street-level storyteller, finding fever-pitched fun in the trials and tribulations of everyday life.
His universal approach was established with the opening “Reggae Got Soul,” sung with a smile beside splendidly blended harmonies from Chantelle Ernandez and Elenore Walters, as an airy bounce from son and bassist Hopeton Hibbert and original Maytals drummer Paul Douglas on understated percussion backed Toots’ light thumb-strumming of an acoustic guitar.
“Pressure Drop” and “Do the Reggay” offered the first two tastes of the trend-transitioning ska-reggae beat, as more melodic bass lines began to steer over Toots’ steadier strum on the two and four beats. The former found Toots singing simply of bad karma biting back while hitting the first heaven-high crowd call, sitting so far back from his microphone as to wonder if his town-crier voice needed it at all; the latter came with the story of his establishing the term “reggae” in 1968, a claim not necessarily disputed but definitely shared.
Toots did away with his apparently burdensome guitar to sing “Sweet and Dandy,” overcoming by inciting crowd clapping and cupping his hands around his mouth for mountaintop projection. In other songs, though, most notably during the ballad “True Love is Hard to Find,” his minimalist if not disinterested guitar playing left a longing for a dedicated guitarist.
Otherwise, the show was entirely brilliant. Toots told of John Denver requesting a reggae rewriting of “Country Roads” and got the crowd to sing along, revived his cover of “Louie, Louie,” the Richard Berry-written classic about a lovestruck Jamaican sailor, and cracked the crowd up with the back story that made sense of the mischievous “Monkey Man.”
His three encores made clear why Toots leads with his guitar, as he improvised tempos, rhythms and lyrics off-the-cuff around standards such as Otis Redding’s “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” and his ode to unjust jail time, “54-46 Was My Number,” at times playfully puzzling his band and others openly stating in many ways that he wanted nothing more than to stay onstage and prolong the lovefest.
Clearly, there’s plenty left in Toots’ tank – long may the Maytals run.