The Beach Ball: Reggae Fest
This past weekend marked the inaugural Beach Ball Soul Revue and Reggae Fest, held at Santa Monica Pier and hosted by L.A. radio station KCRW, Rum & Humble and Spaceland Presents. We weren't able to make it out for the Soul Revue on Saturday, which featured acts like Myron & E and Aloe Blacc. We did, however, head down to the water for Sunday's Reggae Fest. It was a day of dusty records and sub rattling bass; a day filled with incredible and iconic singers, musicians and DJs back-to-back-to-back. It couldn't have been better.
Reggae Fest kicked off mid-afternoon, the bright sun beating down on the weathered wood of the pier with a few light and welcome beach breezes. The beer garden (standard at all pier concerts) was nicely shaded in patches, as was the area where the food vendors were situated. Basically, if you picked the right spot, conditions were essentially perfect.
DJs from Dub Club — the weekly L.A. haven for all things reggae/dub — hit the stage first, selecting (reggae terminology for DJing) rare vinyl in their always seemingly effortless sets. As they warmed up the few dozen attendees who'd arrived early, we made our way to each of the vendor booths lined up on the pier. Though (of course) one booth sold a range of smoking supplies, most were draped in red, gold, and green and stocked with every kind of Bob Marley merchandise imaginable; everything from wristbands and t-shirts to lighters and rolling papers. It almost makes you wonder if there are people who believe the late Marley made every Reggae song ever recorded.
After the last of the Dub Club DJs finished, Soul Syndicate took the stage. One of the premier Reggae session bands in the 1970s and '80s, Soul Syndicate was still in top form on Sunday. As more concertgoers trickled in, Soul Syndicate played songs from their first LP, 1977's Harvest Uptown, Famine Downtown. While “Fade Away” and the album's title track were great in their own right, it was Soul Syndicate's song “Mariwana” that truly lifted the audience. With diehards and new fans both singing along by the end of the song, the chorus seemed to be the incantation that cast the best of kush clouds over the festival.
Once Soul Syndicate wrapped up, Dub Club founder and resident DJ Tom Chasteen got behind the turntables, as he would between sets for the duration of the festivities. It was then time for U-Roy.
A veritable master and legend in the art of toasting — talking, chanting, and singing over reggae and/or dancehall instrumentals — U-Roy was the first performer to make the crowd dance in unison. No matter what he said on the mic, it seemed to be an invitation to get lost in the groove with him. Whether the words were foreign or unfamiliar to those in Santa Monica didn't matter, all felt included in lyrics of struggle and the triumph alike.
While U-Roy performed his song “Natty Rebel,” billows of ganja smoke rose from the ranks swaying back and forth on the pier. Then, after his set ended, several men with dreads formed a circle and began kicking around (read: juggling) a green beach ball like it was a soccer ball. Though security did their best to stop the fun, we're fairly sure they weren't successful.
After sunset, the air cooled significantly and the crowd, larger than it had been the entire day, waited eagerly for the Skatalites. The ska music pioneers, who undoubtedly influenced everyone from Sting to Sublime and No Doubt, took the stage a little late, but it was worth the wait. Given that some of the original band members were either unable to perform or have passed away (the specific reason was unclear), the horn section was noticeably younger than the rest of the band. Still, their age didn't prevent them from delivering a stellar performance. The horns drove the crowd into a frenzy, and the unrelenting bass seemingly made heads bob involuntarily.
Fittingly, the best performance of the night went to the headliners. Quite possibly the most famous reggae rhythm section of all time, Sly (drums) and Robbie (bass) have played on and/or produced over 200,000 recordings. They were, for lack of a better word, instrumental in shaping the sound of Reggae music in the '70s and '80s. After playing some of their own music, incorporating the echo and reverb common in Dub music, Sly and Robbie brought out Michael Rose, former front man for Grammy-winning reggae group Black Uhuru, for whom the duo produced several records.
Cuts from Black Uhuru's 1983 album Anthem (“Solidarity,” “What is Life?” and Next Door”) were well received, but it was classic “Sponji Reggae” that sent attendees rocking. Throughout his set, Rose's near perfect vocals never faltered, his range and control virtually unparalleled. He sounded exactly like he does on every Black Uhuru record we've heard. And his call and response with the audience was as engaging as it was hilarious, as all knew they could never match the man on stage.
Needless to say, if the line-up is anywhere near the caliber it was on Sunday, we'll definitely be headed back to the Reggae Fest next year.
Personal Bias: We attend Dub Club regularly and own numerous Black Uhuru records.
The Crowd: Reggae lovers of every race and gender, both with and without dreads and/or braids.