The 1973 album Catch a Fire established Bob Marley and the Wailers internationally and launched reggae on to the world stage. This gig, featuring a 31-piece orchestra and an 80-voice choir, was a grand-scale tribute to this landmark recording, and, as part of the touring Lively Up! Festival, at the same time marked the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence.
Reggae’s raw-edged sentiments come with refined rhythms, warm harmonies and, in Bob Marley’s case, a strong social narrative – even the love songs are contextualised by a history of slavery. This gig, fronted by Aswad’s vocalist Brinsley Forde, got to the essence of the album’s lyrics while maintaining musical subtleties that could easily have been drowned by the serried ranks of Jazz Jamaica’s big-band brass and the eight strings of the Urban Soul Orchestra – the 80-strong Voicelab choir joined in the second set.
That it worked, at times brilliantly, was due to a rhythm section built from the bottom up, Brinsley Forde’s soul-searching vocals and canny Jason Yarde arrangements that kept the essence, fleshed out key ingredients and gave each tune a special stamp. There were chases and duelling violins, featured solos and a lovely acapella fade from the three backing vocalists, name-checked, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as the Dem Three.
The evening opened with a whine of bottleneck guitar, a shimmer of strings and a whisper of panoramic brass. A rack-a-cack drumbreak called all to order – Rod Youngs, superb all night – and Gary Crosby’s crunchy, well-spaced bass launched the insistent nag of an authentic reggae pulse.
Both sets followed the broad contours of the original album without sticking to the letter – the first set opened with side 1’s “Concrete Jungle” and “Slave Driver”, the second set with side 2’s “Stir It Up”. The choir joined in on “No More Trouble”, their bobbing and swaying as uplifting as the emotional power of the added voices. And to round off a celebratory night, the audience rose as one to dance to three Marley classics. “Redemption Song” and “One Love” gave full reign to Forde’s frontman expertise, but the final “Lively Up”, with its edgy big-band intro and funky brass, confirmed both musicianship and arranger’s skill.
On tour until November 2