A common denominator in the careers of countless performers, from soul music divas to reggae’s biggest ambassadors is an early immersion in the black church, a fountain of rhythm, spirituality and artistic collaboration.
Toots Hibbert, one of the pioneers of Jamaican ska and reggae, left no doubt of his musical roots Saturday night during a vigorous and youthful one-hour show at the Minnesota Zoo. Backed by the latest version of the Maytals, which include his daughter Leba as one of two backup singers, he took fans on a whirlwind tour of hits from a half century of performing.
The band’s show likely would not surprise anyone familiar with its repertoire, or anyone who has seen the Maytals before. But it was a great show, in no small part because Toots, who is now in his 60s, came ready to jam.
He bounced on to the stage for Pressure Drop, a vibrant number that pushed his audience to rise from their wooden bench seats to dance and sway — as well as they could at least — to his island beat. The band followed with an innovative rendition of Louie Louie, a song that owes its opening rhythm to neighboring Cuba.
Though he had the crowd from the start, the singer made it clear that he wanted to hear from their voices and he did throughout the show, engaging them with call and response. At times celebratory, at other times spiritual, he spoke of peace and love, telling is audience on Never Get Weary, “all you’ve got to do is believe in yourself.”
He repeatedly played with the beat, pushing the tempo on Reggae Got Soul, which spoke to the interplay between Jamaica’s musical genres and African-American music. Bam Bam and Funky Kingston were just as soulful.
Hibbert sung with emotion and grace, deftly adding solos on guitar – all while engaging the crowd, shaking hands and fist-bumping members of the audience.
His performance was a reminder of how Jamaican’s have remade North American songs, often improving them, as he did on the John Denver tune, Take Me Home, Country Roads, which he dedicated to the few Jamaicans in the audience, singing “Take me back to the place I belong, west Jamaica, mountain mama, take me home country road.” For me, that’s a lot more alluring than the original.
On Monkey Man, for which the Maytals employed a ska beat, the bandleader briefly echoed Bob Marley, singing “Oh yo! Oh yo! Oh yo, yo, yo!”
For the encore, the band played Broadway Jungle, a jam session, before turning to the singer’s signature tune 54-56, Was My Number. As he had throughout the show, Hibbert upped the tempo at the end of the song, sliding into the thumping and repetitive bass line the singer must have heard on Sundays.
Though it may have been lost on some, he took his audience to church, where it all started.