SAN DIEGO — We have seen the future of reggae, and its name is…Steven Seagal?
OK, so the action-movie figure may not be the salvation of Jamaican music. The actor did manage a couple of surprisingly dexterous turns on electric guitar Monday during the 10-hour Bob Marley Day Celebration held in a full San Diego Sports Arena. “This proves how powerful this music is,” former Black Uhuru vocalist Don Carlos said, as he added Seagal to his band for “Living in the City.”
Nearly 20 years after Robert Nesta Marley died of cancer, reggae’s most influential and charismatic figure still has no successor. His legend lives on, however, embodied here in headliner Bunny Wailer, who along with Marley and the late Peter Tosh formed the original Wailers trio, and Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths, two of the I-Threes (the third was Rita Marley, Bob’s wife), who backed the group that became known in the 1970s as Bob Marley & the Wailers.
And reggae’s future appears assured, if not exactly secure, thanks to the success of second-billed Shaggy, the Jamaican-born dancehall singer whose four-million-selling Hotshot recently left Jennifer Lopez behind to top the pop album chart. The divide between Bunny Wailer and Shaggy was especially pronounced, contrasting the old and the new as well as the sacred and the profane.
A notoriously elusive live performer, the deeply spiritual Wailer has re-entered the arena to take on the sex-stressing “slackness” of dancehall acts such as, well, Shaggy. Wailer, now 52, celebrated his renewed purpose with a remarkably frisky performance, even as he opened on a devout note by invoking both Jesus Christ and Jah Rastafari.
While maintaining a positive tone throughout, Wailer, backed by the Reggae Star band and the Psalms vocal trio, didn’t rely solely on redemption songs. His smooth rock-’n’-groove stylings and “cool runnings” demonstrated the appeal of vintage reggae, although without the wildly creative edge Marley once provided.
Shaggy, meanwhile, displayed creative wildness along with a couple of moments of deep respect for the reggae genre: he covered the Melodions’ “Rivers of Babylon” and Marley’s “Thank You Lord.” Mostly, though, he took on an R&B par-tay attitude that all but demanded concertgoers throw their hands in the air and wave ‘em like they just didn’t care it wasn’t quite reggae.
Shaggy did manage to work reggae dancehall vocals — hip-hop’s quick-paced, more tuneful Caribbean cousin — into his teen-oriented pop settings, playing off of smooth-singing Rayvon and, on the megahit “It Wasn’t Me,” sweet-talking Ricardo “RikRok” Ducent. He also relied on samples ranging from the ridiculous (Mungo Jerry inspired an unseasonal “In the Summertime”) to the sublime (Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” provided the in and out to Shaggy’s lover-man signature, “Boombastic”).
Striking something of a balance between the two was Buju Banton (Mark Myrie), a onetime loose cannon who shot to (in)fame with the homophobia-shouting “Boom Boom, Bye-Bye.” Banton is now a Wailer-style convert, and he awkwardly tried to work some dancehall energy into a reverent set: “It’s not an easy road,” he sang, tellingly.
Also contrasting were dub poet Mutabaruka and rub-a-dub poet
Capleton, the latter grandly introduced by announcer Makeda Dread as “the prophet of Jamaica.” Emerging in the 1980s, Mutabaruka has continued as a sober voice of reason, making his views known here on “System Is a Fraud” and the vegan-radic “Junk Food.” Capleton, a product of the ’90s, countered with a far more manic style.
Don Carlos and Toots & the Maytals were more subdued in their sets. Carlos and his Shiloh band evoked the fully developed ’80s sound of Black Uhuru, the band he founded and saw through various lineups.
Toots Hibbert tended reggae’s ska roots as well as its northern ones: 1960s soul and R&B. Toots showed flashes of his old Otis Redding-styled showmanship, but even “Pressure Drop” suggested a worn-out soul revue.
In separate sets, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths “spread the gospel of reggae music,” in Griffiths’ words; the born-again Mowatt was more literal in that regard. The pair teamed up as “the I-Twos” for a moving version of what Mowatt called “the international anthem,” Marley’s “One Love.”