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Burning Spear at Summerjam 2012

Burning Spear at Summerjam 2012

Burning Spear at Summerjam 2012

By on - Photos by Michael Grein - 2 comments

Spear still burns brightly.

Some years ago the Jamaican Daily Gleaner informed its readers that the success or failure of international reggae festivals hinged on the appearance of Burning Spear and his band. Though tending toward exaggeration – given that his touring treks are now down to a trickle - the validity of this assertion was well and truly tested at SUMMERJAM 2012. Headlining the Saturday night on the main (red) stage with a one hour twenty minute allocation, Winston Rodney allayed the fears of his mainly white European admirers with a characteristically impressive performance. Though recent trials and tribulations in his personal and musical lives have taken a toll, there’s little sign that this Spear is wilting.

Burning Spear at Summerjam 2012

Winston Rodney adopted the name Burning Spear after the African freedom fighter and Kenya’s first head of state Jomo Kenyatta. His musical journey began in 1969 at Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One, when along with Rupert Willington and Delroy Hines they formed the quintessential roots reggae vocal harmony. Now if you’re looking for a three-minute hit pop tune, Spear is not your man. His style is more long tracks with trance-inducing repetitive riffs and rhythms. The hypnotic power of his soft chanting voice is the trademark, akin to Zairian Soukous or Nigerian Juju. It provides the route of homage to prominent personalities like Marcus Garvey, in its espousal of self-reliance and self-determination – key characteristics of Rodney himself. Whilst the frequency, duration, mobility and intensity associated with Spear’s shows may have dipped – the man is in his late 60s - the impact of his performances still surpasses that of many other entertainers, musical extravaganzas and even theatre troupes.

The large attendance adorning the red stage at SUMMERJAM 2012 was quite an achievement, considering that Spear was competing with the self-proclaimed ‘King of the Dancehall’ – and recently reformed homophobic – Beenie Man, who was appearing contemporaneously on the main (green) stage. At the outset this elder statesman of Rastafari wished all well, agreeing that it’s been ‘a long time now’ since the ‘original lion’ did SUMMERJAM. On his return to Europe for the first time in nearly 2 years Spear emerged after a 20 minute sound test cum medley driven by the Burning Band. Like all good showmen Spear (in his now customary shredded denims and short-sleeved shirt) stopped before he started. Standing stock still and sober he absorbed the appreciative applauding thousands standing and swaying before him. Having wished Jamaica a ‘happy birthday’, and made the obligatory references to Marcus Garvey and related themes he sent us to ‘pick up the pieces’ as ‘The Youth’ opened the show in fine style.

This prompted Rodney to make his first (almost 5 minute) retreat to the imposing bongos, as his band engaged in various forms of antics in an attempt to maintain the show’s visual appeal. After a quick ‘thank you’ to his audience the band moved to the excruciatingly agonising ‘Jah No Dead’, stirring sweet memories of Spear’s 1979 a capella performance in the film ‘Rockers’. He then sent his locks flying before putting on a macho ‘keep fit’ display – with ‘on the spot running’ and sprint like salvoes across stage, culminating in a 360 degree twirl for good measure! This exercise routine prompted the first of many (now standard Spear) exhortations to the crowd that they ‘talk to me’ before giving the bongos another good beating. Thematically consistent, Spear then treated us to ‘Jah Is My Driver’ – yet another track from ‘back in the day’, serving to bring the best out of the moving masses – until the guitar solos intervened. The performance reached a musical crescendo as the New York-based Rastafarian’s classic ‘Man In The Hills’, ensued, adorned by his captivating capacity to ape birdsong chirp and clatter, followed by a request to his listeners that you ‘talk to me if you feeling irie’. Preceding what may be Spear’s most renowned composition ‘Slavery Days’ we were treated to an empathetic ‘Mama Africa we feel your pain’ speech. It’s unclear how many members of the German audience ‘remember the days of slavery’, but they certainly sang and swayed like they did!

Burning Spear at Summerjam 2012Thereafter Spear demanded that the audience ‘talk to me if you want some more, shout it out ..’, outlining his biographical background (to 1969), as yet another guitar solo succeeded the statement that ‘people of Germany we love you’. As ‘Red, Gold and Green’ filled the air Spear exhorted his listeners to ‘sing like you never sang before’ as ‘I’ve been singing it a long time for you’. After again confirming his physical status (with much dancing and invigorating bodily exertions) Spear’s version of the Grateful Dead’s ‘Estimated Prophet’ track was twirled. Though serving to ingratiate Spear with the Dead’s fan base, this selection prompted the first distinct lull in the show and may well have been a carryover from rehearsals for his previous show in California. The Californian audience will have identified with and appreciated the input. The lull was accentuated – prompting some departures for Beenieman and elsewhere – when the title track of Spear’s Grammy winning ‘Jah Is Real’ ensued. That this track means much to Rodney was evident in his repeated exhortations to the crowd to ‘sing the chorus’. Regrettably (but not surprisingly) most didn’t – despite Spear adopting a Santa Claus role in the distribution of posters and other goodies from his travelling bag and indulging in some more bongo beating. Clearly this track means more to Spear than to most of his followers. But Winston Rodney has always been his own man. And that’s a big part of the attraction.

The show wound to a close with yet more guitar solos and Spear engaging in overhead handclapping as he (yet again) exhorted his audience to follow suit. After exactly one and a quarter hours Spear confirmed that ‘it was good to be here’, as he retreated to the bongos to engage in some serious Nyahbinghi, whilst his guitarist Ronnie Moses tried to whip up some audience enthusiasm for a slice of the performance that hardly needed it. The show was brought to a close courtesy of a smooth instrumental ensemble, as Spear then threatened to take ‘I and I away’ via ‘Zion Higher’, and the sun was long gone before he chose to ‘Call On You’, as he was (customarily) reminded by his colleagues that (show)time was up. This served to light the touch paper bringing the ‘African Postman’ on his deliveries, as Spear gave his standard speech warning us ‘to watch our backs going out’. Having thanked his engineers, the lighters, the fans and the band, Spear departed after exactly one and a half hours to a generous and appreciative applause. Whilst the playlist persistently reflects Spear’s most creative phase (especially the earlier bloc of the 1969-86 span) this hasn’t prevented him from subsequently picking up 2 Grammys – in 2000 (‘Calling Rastafari’) and 2009 (‘Jah Is Real’). Indeed it still remains a mystery to many how he didn’t score with ‘Rasta Business’ in 1995.

SUMMERJAM confirms that Winston Rodney is now greyer, balder and less mobile and energetic. But he’s still the centre of attention – despite being surrounded by 3 axemen, 3 brass players, a drummer and synthesisers. Though Spear failed to introduce (and even on request furnish the names of) his ‘Burning Band’ or ‘Young Lions’, it seems that his persistent practice of rotating band members meant that many familiar faces were not on board this time round. However Clyde Cummings (sax), Jarritt Sheel (trumpet) and Micah Robinson (trombone) continue to play one of Spear’s trump cards i.e. live brass. Though not as diverse or innovative an influence as the all-female crew deployed in the 1980s (on the classic though still controversial ‘Live In Paris’ album), from whom there was a somewhat unseemly split, they still provided the all-important pitch to complement Rodney’s gravel-pit vocals. Likewise Michael Crevier may be no Nelson Miller (Spear’s long-time drummer) but he does follow in an honourable line of drivers or stickmen, enabling the overall band effect. For many, the highlight of Spear’s shows are his intermittent recourse to the bongos. However unlike his predecessor Nelson Miller, Crevier doesn’t join Spear by the bongos. Given the frequent - though somewhat forced - exhortations from Ronnie Moses and other band members to the audience to applaud during these bongo solo runs (perhaps to prevent the show’s momentum from dipping), it might have been wiser to deploy some concerted choreography or even a complementary bongo beater. Nevertheless the mesmerising trance-inducing bongo interventions were widely appreciated and call to mind Spear’s last London show (in 2005) when he had to be interrupted to forego the bongos and get on with the rest of the show!

Burning Spear at Summerjam 2012

Burning Spear may not champion the same range of political worthy causes as his late peer, Peter Tosh. Few do. He may not have assumed the mantle vacated by his St. Ann’s Bay neighbour, Bob Marley. No one did. Yet as music journalist Chris Salewicz contends, Spear can now rightly claim the title of reggae’s foremost ‘elder statesman’. Though the Spear bandwagon has had its fair share of curiosities, contradictions and conflict (under the management of his mercurial minder Sonia Rodney), it has also had more than its fair share of reasons to celebrate. A voluminous high quality musical output laced with integrity, successive Grammys (and other awards), an adoring public and (eventually) awesome appearance fees are all well deserved. And as the residents of St. Ann’s Infirmary can testify, the Rodneys are not beyond charitable works.

Spear’s last appearance on stage at SUMMERJAM (also in the falling rain in 2001) came hot on the heels of Culture’s Joe Hill’s performance. Hill – whom Spear subsequently referred to as the one closest to him musically - is no longer with us. That should be a timely reminder to all to cherish what is dear – namely, the Burning Spear. Next up from this stable is the eagerly anticipated 12 track ‘No Destroyer’ album, together the homemade bio-documentary ‘Rise Up’.

Nearly 20 years ago Spear explained to his followers that ‘no man is perfect, but it is our duty to work as close as possible to be perfect’. When it comes to high quality roots reggae music and live shows he’s already well down that road. Though SUMMERJAM 2012 may not have been Spear in full flight with all his characteristic intensity, we should be grateful that we were not subjected to the sight of a living legend going through the motions merely for the money.

And so long may this Spear continue to sizzle and sear. Respect! 

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Read comments (2)


Posted by daumerie on 07.19.2012
que la musique illumine nos coeur....

Posted by miltonnyoni on 09.02.2012
Burning Spear forever burning, JAH RASTAFARI!

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