It’s a tapestry of sounds—the roots heavy songs of Bob Marley interwoven with street savvy dancehall from his youngest son, Damian Marley. “Junior Gong,” as Damian is affectionately referred to in reggae circles, weaved the new and the old together in an enticing manner at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater on Friday, February 10. It was the first of a two-night stint.
The sold-out San Francisco crowd was eager to see the brainchild behind the powerful radio anthem “Welcome to Jamrock.” In fact, my suspicion is that most concert-goers proceeded to Ticketmaster on the popularity of this song alone. The young, mostly-caucasian audience was sufficiently inebriated and chatty, celebrating under the pretext of “Bob Marley Month” (The senior Marley was born on February 6, 1945 and festivities abound throughout the month, the highlight being the Raggamuffin Festival in Long Beach on Feb. 18-19). Rather than paying tribute to the Honorable Robert Nesta Marley, the crowd seemingly paid tribute to getting high, drunk, and as my friend put it, “making out.” Perhaps it was my little section under the balcony that was especially unruly, but my irritation festered with the frequent beer spilling and careless elbowing.
The show was timely. Damian had just flown up from Los Angeles with his crew after winning two Grammy awards for Best Reggae Album and Best Urban Alternative on February 8. These awards were nothing new for the 28-year-old star who won Best Reggae Album a few years back for his sophomore release, “Halfway Tree.”
When he asked the crowd, “Where are my ‘Halfway Tree’ people at?” there was a minor rumble. Apparently his ‘Halfway Tree’ people couldn’t get past the gauntlet of Bill Graham Presents’ rules and regulations. Maybe they didn’t have the money to pay Ticketmaster’s $10 service fee on top of the $30 ticket. Maybe they were all in New York, Toronto, and Florida. Notable was the fact that I did see a few of them passing out flyers outside when I left the venue.
SkyHigh, Damian’s manager and den father of sorts, emceed the show. With a Jamaican map imprinted on each lens, his sunglasses epitomized Jamaican fashion for me. The story goes that on his deathbed, Bob Marley asked Sky to keep an eye on his children. Sky gave Bob his word and has kept it ever since.
The concert itself was a burst of color from the back-up singers’ amazing dance moves to the flag bearer’s Rastafarian flag. The tone changed about fifteen minutes into the show when someone from the crowd flung a water bottle at Damian. Shocked, he had to duck. The band continued but it was awkward for a couple of minutes when things felt unsafe—Damian backed off to the rear of the stage, security came up front, and there was an unsettling tone in the place. I leaned over to my friend and said, “If this were Jamaica, I bet that guy would have gotten shot.” Yes I.
Damian performed nearly two hours worth of songs from all three of his albums including tunes “It Was Written,” “Mi Name Junior Gong,” “Educated Fools,” “Paradise Child,” “In 2 Deep,” “Move!” and of course the mega-finale “Welcome to Jamrock.” Interspersed with his own songs, he delivered his own rendition of his father’s songs: “Could You Be Loved,” “Forever Loving Jah,” “War,” and he did a Marley medley that included “Top Rankin’” which could be one of the best Marley songs out there, “They don’t want to see us unite: All they want us to do is keep on fussing and fighting. They don’t want to see us live together: All they want us to do is keep on killing one another…” The union of new and old is best heard on the song “Move!” with Bob Marley’s “Exodus” as the foundation while Damian chats over it. At times, it seemed as though the band was creating the set list as they went, but this was never confirmed.
The tragedy of the whole show was that Damian had a strong message which fell on deaf ears. Between all the chatting, drinking, smoking and making out, the crowd didn’t have a clue as to what he was saying – when Damian made space for the audience to fill in his lyrics, a messy void filled the room. With “In 2 Deep” Damian delivered a strong monologue describing people who put the best fuel in their car, but eat fast food when it comes to their own bodies. He sang his anti-abortion, anti-adoption song “For the Babies,” about parents needing to step up to the plate and take responsibility for their actions, “Is there no other option than adoption for you babies? You’re raffling and jacketing and auctioning your babies.” Even “Jamrock” depicts the underbelly of Jamaican society, where guns are more valued than common sense, “Come on let’s face it, a ghetto education’s basic. An’ most of the youths them waste it and when them waste it, that’s when they take the guns and replace it then them don’t stand a chance at all. And that’s why a nuff little youth have up some fat matic…”
The good news in all of this is that the youngest Marley weaves together uptown and downtown, white and black, roots and dancehall, reggae and hip-hop, old and new, with all of the grays in between. He is the torchbearer for the next generation and I would emphatically say we’re in good hands.