Rasta legends: High old time at Wailers' show

The Wailers
at Starr Hill
Thursday, May 22


The Wailers achieved international fame with Bob Marley in the mid-'70s, but that blip is just one point on a lengthy timeline that began in Jamaica in the '60s.

In addition to reggae, the group is largely credited with popularizing Rastafarianism, a relatively new religion that encourages independence and pride within the black community, and resistance to the "downpression" of "Babylon" (the white power structure).

Several original members of the group– Aston "Family Man" Barrett, Al Anderson, and Earl "Wya" Lindo– came to Starr Hill last Thursday with some new inductees in tow.

I arrived during the opening set of Richmond reggae band Crucial Elements. The hefty $20 tariff had created a strangely divided crowd: 40 percent hippies, 60 percent idle nouveau riche. The two mixed like oil and water.

While I couldn't make out the lyrics, the music was fairly enjoyable-­ basic, but promising. The lead singer had waist-length dreads, the ultimate Rastafarian hairstyle (see Downtown Mall harmonica player for illustration), and stage presence.

But the lyrics... The kids seemed a little too eager to prove their jahtasticness, and they batted around the lexicon, references to their own Rasta trappings, and not so oblique whoop-whoops to the herb– slight overkill, like a game of frying-pan shuttlecock.

I wondered how much Elmer's they had to roll into their hair to snarl those straight shafts. But then again, could any dreadless band truly open for the Wailers?

Of course, people cheered at every mention of ganja.

I was happy when the Wailers finally took the stage: The crowd parted like the Red Sea, and the elders walked up with the solemnity born of a long and fruitful career.

Then they launched into an hour-and-a-half-long set that featured classics as well as some newer cuts from their two latest albums, 1994's Never Ending Wailers, and 1996's Jah Message. As expected, their trademark sound came together very well– deep bass lines, one-drop drumming, and clipped guitar on the offbeat.

Two women provided backup vocals and sinuous, synchronized dancing. Repeatedly, the lead vocalist lifted his face upward, rapturously concentrating on the moment, and shook his massive dreads back and forth.

I left with a warm, happy feeling, and it wasn't from the fumy mist. For one night, the Wailers were able to escape head shop and dorm room tape decks. And that, in itself, was enough to give me a buzz.