Barrington Levy, Papa San, John Holt, Aswad, Lucky Dube: Reggae Sunsplash, Greek Theatre, Los Angeles CA

The Musical Diversity Is as Broad as the Quality Is High at Reggae Sunsplash at Greek Theatre.

THE MUSICAL diversity was as broad as the quality was high during Saturday’s sold-out performance of the eighth annual Reggae Sunsplash bill at the Greek Theatre, where a second full house was expected for Sunday.

The Aswad story could be stripped down to one line from an oldies medley that the headlining English band performed: “Just my imagination running away with me.” No reggae artists are more relentlessly creative in crafting their arrangements and less vulnerable to the charge of repetitive groove-mongering.

But Aswad’s smart, smooth sophistication comes at the expense of gripping material, and its cold performance was geared to wowing the audience rather than touching it emotionally. The exception: a number in which guest Papa San added his deejay personality to the band’s fluid, jazzy backing.

Logistics forced second-billed Lucky Dube to jump-start the bill by performing first. The South African singer brought a springy freshness to familiar roots reggae elements — maybe the absence of guitar solos in the arrangements did it. Dube also lightheartedly mocked the standard audience sing-a-long routine with an impossibly high vocal phrase pitched somewhere between a gospel falsetto and the lead vocal of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’.

Following a well-received ’60s pop-reggae segment by John Holt, deejay Papa San instantly put his finger on the audience’s trigger. The first 10 minutes of his set were galvanizing, but his reliance on solo motor-mouth routines diminished the momentum for all but die-hard fans of the skeletal deejay sound.

Barrington Levy was an awkward performer, but he may be the best pure singer to emerge in reggae in years. His high, clear voice was sharp but never shrill, and so compelling that the audience started singing along, unprompted, to the “a-wo-oh-oh” vocal phrase that’s his trademark.

The slow groove of ‘Murderers’ connected, and the fact that Levy’s sound occupies the crossroads between old reggae song craft and contemporary dance-hall techniques bodes well for his future.

© Don SnowdenLos Angeles Times, 25 May 1992

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