The Wailers @ o2 Institute, 10 March 2018

In the wake of Bob Marley’s death in 1981 he left amongst other things, a booming T-shirt and poster business (along with the face of Che Guevara); a misunderstood revolutionary spirit within countless white middle-class teenagers (because they only ever bought ‘Legend’ and not the hardcore stuff), as they attempt to annoy their parents; and more seriously, a gaping void that the Wailers on their own could never fill.  For many years agreement was never reached between the surviving members of the band on how best to continue.  Al Anderson established The Original Wailers and almost everyone else joined the ever evolving line up of The Wailers, which on this tour includes Aston Barrett on bass, Tyrone Downie on keyboards, Junior Marvin vocals and lead guitar (Fender Strat), Donald Kinsey lead guitar (Gibson SG, lead vocal on ‘Johnny Be Good’) and Aston Barrett Jr on drums.  Josh Barrett makes a brave move to take on Bob’s main vocals and rhythm guitar, and Shema McGregor takes her place on backing vocals, with another beautiful singer whose name I did not catch.

Now before you shake your head and consider that there can be no Wailers without Bob (or Peter, or Bunny), just remember the importance of the original Upsetter and inventor of the reggae bass style, Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett, who along with his brother Carlton became the Wailers rhythm section back in 1969, and is on stage tonight.  His sound is unmistakable as it is so loud and so low you can feel your fillings shifting in your teeth.  His playing style has influenced every bass player since as it permeates every genre and most importantly, he shaped Marley’s sound throughout his career being the arranger and also co-producer.  If anyone is qualified to bring Bob Marley’s songs to new and old audiences it is Fams.  It is an absolute honour to share the same space as him tonight.

The Wailers’ set opens without a fanfare as it seems that roadies and band members are checking levels before they start jamming into the first song.  The lights then go down and the jam turns into ‘Positive Vibration’ — and this track sums up the night: a rich, warm sharing of love and peace, with songs that are joyful to sing, all underpinned by a throbbing mass of low frequencies from Fams’ vibrating bass strings.

All of Bob Marley’s most well known songs are played (Buffalo Soldier, I Shot the Sheriff, Three Little Birds, Stir It Up, Could You Be Loved, Is This Love etc), with many extended by short dub sections, where the reverb and delay are cranked up on Aston Barrett Jr’s drum kit and everyone else but his dad drops out.  The playing is loose but the band is effortlessly tight.  This is helped by the father and son rhythm section who clearly love playing together.  Aston Snr, delights in trying to make his son laugh as he bobs and weaves next to him on the stage.

Lead vocals are shared between Junior Marvin and Josh Barrett, with Josh taking care of the songs in a higher key.  One of their finest moments is the first encore when it is only the two of them on stage and they humbly perform ‘Redemption Song’.  The audience have been vocal all night, but it is during this song when you really hear their voices.

One of tonight’s many highlights for me is hearing the beautiful understated Hammond organ played by Tyrone Downie throughout ‘No Woman, No Cry’.  It is a glorious rendition with Josh showing what a great vocalist he is as well; and by the way, he isn’t impersonating Bob, he just happens to have a beautifully smooth and soulful voice, which can break into a raw emotion, just like Bob.  The Wailers really made a fine choice when they asked this young man to join their band.

The end of the set is an extended version of ‘Jammin’ where all the band members get to show what makes this such a special group of musicians.  They are so in tune with each other and love the music so much, that their joy is almost palpable.  When Tyrone uses his vocoder to sing ‘Hope you like jammin’, the room cannot stop smiling.

‘Get up, Stand Up’ and ‘Exodus’ close the show in style, but also with the biggest irony of the night as audience members in the gallery are forced to sit down and stop dancing by Institute security, while the words “Get up, stand up!  Stand up for your rights” is sung by the band.  I understand the Institute are concerned that people may fall from the gallery and hurt themselves and those below, but how likely is that to happen.  It is worrying when you see those who have bought tickets being threatened with removal for standing and dancing — particularly when the music is this infectious.

And it is infectious; these songs played tonight are still in my head days later — I cannot stop singing them to myself.  The Wailers are only in the UK for a little while longer and they are simply unmissable.

Reviewer: Alan Neilson

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