25 January 2010

Raggamuffin Festival 2010: Lauryn Hill, Shaggy, Julian Marley, Sean Kingston & Steel Pulse Reviewed!

Saturday 30th January, 2010 at the Brisbane Riverstage, Australia.

Dreadlocks and weed smoke were the order of the day at the Brisbane Riverstage this January. Indeed, it was in surplus, or at least that’s the tale the Glad-bag full of joints on the ground outside told. Never have I witnessed a festival queue this long at this venue, not even for The Hives, Franz Ferdinand, or Nick Cave. And yet, for all the joints being passed around, I can’t imagine the bag-checking was terribly thorough. It seemed to be an unwritten rule – police presence was minimal if not non-existent – and security cracked down on fold-out chairs while developing convenient black spots in their vision in the shape of hand-rolled blunts. And why would you, I suppose; it kept the masses subdued enough not to cause any real trouble.

Unfortunately, I missed festival openers House of Shem due to the shambolic queuing system. I can at least say that their music sounded studio quality, as I was under the false impression that the music coming from the loudspeakers was being played from a compact disc.

When I finally entered the festival grounds, I wondered what perverted brand of justice would allow me to miss a talented band and not the infernal scribbling of Sean Kingston that followed. I don’t have much to say on the subject, actually – fans of Mr. Kingston would have been better off staying at home and listening to the CD – he was essentially standing on stage performing karaoke to his own tunes. Truly awful.

Thank God redemption was at hand, though, when Steel Pulse took to the stage. They sported a powerful reggae groove throughout the set, emphasising the bass line as all good reggae should. And while said grooves sat back in the saddle (again, as all good reggae should), the band played with a tightness that can only come from 35 years of musicianship.

Building on this strong musicianship came Melbourne-based blues and roots band Blue King Brown. Their set was as rhythmic as it was politically and emotionally charged. A great deal of that came from Haitian-born backing vocalist Ngaiire on the back of their tragic loss, but the stage well and truly belonged to lead singer and guitarist Natalie Pa’apa’a, loaded as she was with fire and charisma. This is strong message music at its finest – though perhaps a little too strong – I almost felt bad dancing to it, as if I was somehow trivialising its meaning by enjoying it aesthetically. I’m sure Pa’apa’a would be pleased to know this – mission accomplished!

Julian Marley, one of Bob’s many sons, followed to take things down a peg (or ’simmer down’, if you will). From a distance, I could have sworn it was the Man himself. Closing my eyes, I believed he was there. Unfortunately for Julian and his siblings, they will forever live in his father’s shadow. And how could you not, really – but there is still a degree to which they’ve failed to build on their father’s music – musically, politically, and spiritually. He looks like Bob, he sounds like Bob, but he doesn’t stir like Bob. Nonetheless, it remains a great privilege to be able to hear a Wailers tune sung by a Marley in this day and age.

Sly and Robbie came up as the sun went down, and the people danced into the night to their laundry list of riddims, each folding seamlessly into the next. Much as I revere them as pioneers and innovators of the Jamaican music scene, I found myself unable to penetrate their sound. It seemed so lost and unfocused, a reggae take on a Grateful Dead acid jam. But that’s some people’s bag, and I respect that.

Next came the one we were all waiting for (contrary to what Shaggy would have you believe) – Ms. Lauryn Hill – and by God, she’s still got it. I was truly astonished at how many devoted fans she still has even today, and in Australia no less. Their devotion was well deserved: Ms. Hill delivered a truly incendiary performance, spitting out lyrics like machine-gun fire. Set highlights included “Ready or Not” and “Doo Wop (That Thing)”. Julian Marley returned to the stage to perform a stunning duet of “Turn Your Lights Down Low”. The only down side was the annoying deejay, who was louder in the mix than even Hill, repeatedly yelling “come on Brisbane, make some nooo-oise!!” between each track. (Everyone could tell Lauryn hated him as well, which only added to our affinity.)

Shaggy closed the festival along similar lines (to the deejay, not Hill herself), under the false impression that everyone had come to see him. He seemed not at all impressed with the Brisbane crowd’s tired enthusiasm, despite the fact that it was 11pm and half of them were stoned out of their minds (some perhaps passively). It was a classic case of mismatched demographics: Shaggy was the drawcard to bring in a wider audience (mostly women who want to sleep with him for reasons unknown even to them), while reggae enthusiasts regard his music as Reggae Lite – watered down for the Great Unwashed. Strip reggae of all its political and spiritual significance, and what are you left with? A ‘rude boy’, and just a ‘rude boy’. Indeed, as I watched Shaggy (and Rayvon) amuse with his sexually-charged stagecraft, I found myself wanting for the stuff of substance: your Steel Pulses, your Blue King Browns, and your Lauryn Hills.

Wyclef Jean was originally billed to headline the show, but postponed his performance to 2011 to help the relief effort in his homeland of Haiti. It left me wondering – was Lauryn called in as a last-minute favour for an old friend? Or did she come out of hiding for the one opportunity she was guaranteed not to bump into her former lover and bandmate? Part of me hoped for a Fugees reunion, however unlikely that may have been. Nonetheless, I came away from Raggamuffin far from disappointed.

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