::Literate Blather::
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
The World's Greatest Live Reggae Album

Burning Spear’s “Live in Paris Zenith ‘88” Turns 20 Years Old

Let me get this out of the way first: Bob Marley transcends reggae. He’s an artist of incredible originality and talent and by most accounts he’s the grand master of reggae – a musical genius.

But we’re not going to talk about Marley today.

We’re going to talk about one of the most underrated reggae artists in the world. A man who recorded a live reggae album 20 years ago that stands as the greatest live reggae performance ever put to celluloid (the album was actually released in 1989, but the live show was held on May 21, 1988).

The album in question is Burning Spear “Live in Paris Zenith ’88.”

Listen to this album too long and your nose sunburns. Your nostrils flare with the sweet scent of sliced mango. The cold, refreshing tingle of a Carib beer washes against the back of your throat. Salt water breezes ruffle your hair. And you start to grow dreadlocks.

You get the picture. This is roots reggae at its finest.

“Live in Paris” is a Caribbean vacation. It’s magical; a searing, rollicking performance by Winston Rodney a.k.a. Burning Spear. It’s a jam fest loaded with passion – and lots of funky guitar work by Lenford Richards and Anthony Bradshaw.

Buy it and you may well burn out your iPod.

Amazingly, Burning Spear was 50 years old at the time of the show. But he’s young, vibrant, and at the top of his game here. “Live in Paris” doubles as a best of album and listeners are given the pleasure of hearing a musical master in action as he makes his way through his best music.

But there’s more to the album than driving reggae music. Burning Spear is a devoted Rastafarian (a religion that developed in the early 1930s that believes that Haile Selassi I, the former emperor of Ethiopia was God, whom they call Jah). Many of the tenets of the Rastafarian religion are sung by Spear on the album – the oppression of blacks, the prophet-hood of Marcus Garvey, the importance of African culture, human dignity and self-respect.

By all measures, this is a religious album, but one can only wish that the chorus at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church could rock like Spear and his Burning Band.

Spear was born in the same village in Jamaica as Garvey and Marley in 1948. On March 1, he’ll turn 70 years old this year while remaining one of the most prolific and thoughtful reggae artists in the world (he released a compilation album called “The Burning Spear Experience” last year).

But it’s doubtful that Spear will ever top the magnificence of his “Live in Paris” album. The weakest track on this 13-song album is the first one “Spear Burning” – a rather clunky number that doesn’t capture the spirit of the rest of the album.

But Spear unleashes afterwards and “Live in Paris” ascends into a live album classic. The rest of the album is simply remarkable – in a strong part to the full complement of instruments. Unlike other reggae artists, Spear has a full brass section (trumpet, saxophone and trombone). It adds incredible depth to the music. It’s difficult to get through without bobbing your head and wanting to dance (preferable on a moonlit beach).

Highlights include the sultry “We Are Going,” the rhythmic “Driver,” and the Jah-inspired “African Postman.” Spear is an incredible showman – often stopping through a song to shout, rap, and howl. His voice becomes the primary instrument on the album.

“Live in Paris Zenith ‘88” – even after 20 years – has yet to be surpassed.

Read about our favorite kick-ass old Van Halen tunes here

Billie Holiday's protest song "Strange Fruit" turns 70 years old

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