burning spear at cocoanut grove

“Wicked!” I exclaimed to everyone around me, none of whom I knew. My smile was so wide I thought my teeth were going to burst out of my mouth. We were in the middle of Burning Spear’s masterpiece, “Tumble Down,” when Spear completed a vocal line. By the sound of the drum break, a long dub sequence was imminent-anticipation for the bass line-boom! Ah, that’s the sound. Wicked!

Wicked, my favorite saying of the moment, is a Jamaican term, previously co-opted by New England’s teenagers in the late 80’s, when West-coasters were using “rad” for everything noteworthy. Wicked is a word so rich and so versatile. Like it describes all of the Burning Band members’ talent, from Cecil Ordonez’s bluesy guitar rifts all the way down to Spear’s conga playing.

dave richardsWicked describes the Burning Band’s new bassey, Dave Richards, who, in his mesh sport suit, tennis shoes, and sideways visor, looks like he missed the Shaggy tour bus and was left behind in some fluke accident to play bass for Burning Spear. Delivering smooth bass lines and oozing talent, Richards is definitely a musician to watch. And wicked also describes the luxury of a horn section.

Having just seen Alpha Blondy at Maritime Hall in San Francisco, and a week prior at the Monterey Bay Reggae Fest, the horn section was on my mind. A little fun fact: Alpha travels with 21 people, while Spear only travels with a measly 13! It’s true that synthesizers have become mighty sophisticated within the last few years and bands can get away without having a brass section (Steel Pulse and Aswad are good examples), but let me tell you, if you can get a horn section on payroll, that’s the way to do it. And with 21 people, what’s another three?

james smithThe Burning Horns-Clyde Cummings (sax), James Smith (trumpet) and Micah Robinson (trombone)-sounded sharp during the two performances I saw in San Francisco and at the Cocoanut Grove in Santa Cruz. Their sound was round and full, rich and musical–they even followed dynamics-something to which I wouldn’t mind more reggae bands paying attention. Robinson told me that the brass section had had a shaky start to the “Don’t Hurt the Rastaman” tour, but it is evident that those problems have been addressed.

micheal ramseyAs we all know, the purpose of the band is not to overshadow the lead singer, nor to butcher his/her music. A good band will make the lead singer sound like the excellent messenger that s/he is. The Burning Band knows this and was successful. I even saw a few smiles come from Winston Rodney (a.k.a Burning Spear), “the most serious man in Reggae.” They went through some of the greats: “Slavery Days,” “Old Marcus Garvey,” “Tumble Down,” “Door Peep,” “Jah No Dead,” “Rockin’ Time,” and included more contemporary songs from his later albums.

The shows I saw were packed. People came out of the woodwork to see Spear, despite the tragic terrorist attacks a few days earlier. In San Francisco, they were even competing with Anthony B, who was performing across town at Slim’s. In Santa Cruz, the show sold out within the first half hour of the opening act.

gillieCatch the “Don’t Hurt the Rastaman Tour,” if they come to a venue near you. They are promoting a still untitled album as yet. And while you’re at it, check out Alpha Blondy and the Solar System for yet another excellent live band experience. If that’s not possible, pick up their new disc “Paris Bercy,” on the Shanachie label. It’s well worth it!

Special thanks to Denise, Brent, Sylvan, 2B1 and Pulse Productions for access.