Roots reggae band Groundation played a tribute to Bob Marley at San Francisco’s Mezzanine on 2/7, beginning the show with two tracks of their own off their album Hebron Gate. Not surprisingly these were the best performances of the night, which included a good selection of Marley songs, some more popular, some less so — although in truth when the conversation’s about Bob Marley all discussion of fame by song is purely relative. Marley’s canon, best encapsulated by, but not restricted to, Legend, the quintessential best-of album, lives in it’s own world of praise and reverence, ceaselessly appreciated and perpetuated by fans and casual listeners alike, and wholly unaffected by subsequent developments in every genre of music, let alone in the under-appreciated (but perhaps inconveniently enduring) genre of reggae. Groundation is one of the very best American reggae bands touring today, and it was a little disappointing to hear them restricted to such safe, familiar material. In the same way that the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” has been beaten to death by un-ending commercial over-use, songs like “I Shot The Sheriff” have long since been drained of any edge or room for innovation they may have once held. As reggae is a largely underground genre, especially outside the Bay Area, the only surefire way to justify a venue as large as The Mezzanine is probably to play Marley tributes. It must be a little frustrating for the musicians. Each reggae artist will inevitably have to pay homage to the Legend, the album and the man, and enjoy it. In some cases they will be relegated to playing him in exclusivity, as The Wailers have done in practical uniformity since his death in 1981. The venues where you can find good new reggae groups are few and far between, clubs like Berkeley’s Ashkenaz, and mammoth festivals like Reggae on the River and Reggae in the Park. Marley tributes easily outnumber these exceptions.
While they did justice to Marley’s numbers, my favorite being their rendition of “War,” the hands down stand-outs of the evening were their own numbers, Jah Jah Know and Undivided, the first and last tracks on their fabulous album Hebron Gate. These songs are instrumentally complex, soulful, and possessing a sophisticated sense of drama and musical progression that, dare I say, Marley never had. This is reggae that has indeed matured and grown since the sainted man’s passing on. I would’ve liked to hear the rest of the album, and a full performance of it would have made at least a few hardcore fans out of the audience, I’m sure. It’s unfortunate that a band that represents, and easily demonstrates the merits of modern reggae, and, if given the airplay and publicity, could help to make it a more viable genre, is still tied so inextricably to the only reliably recognizable face. This is a hugely talented group with as much to offer to reggae fans as to anyone with a love and interest in music. I look forward to their next tour. Hopefully they’ll be playing their own stuff.
Photo courtesy of The Santa Barbara Independent
[This review originally appeared on MyCrazyMusicBlog, and cannot be reproduced without permission. Thank you]