Burning Spear brings reggae to Barrington

Winston Rodney, aka Burning Spear, at Club Helsinki (photo by Seth Rogovoy)

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., July 7, 2004) Ė In a non-stop, two-hour-plus concert on Tuesday night at Club Helsinki, reggae legend Winston Rodney, better known by his nom-de-bande, Burning Spear, made a case for the Jamaican dance formís classical virtues and proportions. Spear and his band played an unadulterated, traditional style of reggae, emphasizing rhythmic and melodic elasticity and the power of a soulful, infectious groove.

Holding a wireless microphone decorated in the colors of the Rastafarian flag, Spear intoned his deep, spoken-sung lyrics over the pounding riddims of the bass guitar and the drums. A three-man horn section consisting of trombone, trumpet and saxophone served as a call-and-response choir, flavoring the peaceful, easy music with touches of gospel, jazz and r&b.

It was Spearís second visit to Helsinki, and the club prepared in advance for a sold-out crowd by clearing out all the tables and chairs. Even though the dance floor was packed with fans rocking left and right to the incessant reggae beats, the overall vibe was overwhelmingly mellow. The music saw to that, guaranteeing reassurance with the drummerís steady thwack of his snare drum always on the third beat.

Spearís band also included keyboards and guitar, but both were utterly functional, the keys primarily a percussive tool for the backbeats and the guitar rarely calling attention to itself. Rather, the musicians functioned in lockstep, leaving plenty of breathing room in the arrangements for Spearís vocals and the horns to punch through the rhythms with the warmth of human breath.

Occasionally most of the musicians would drop out, leaving just the bass to articulate the pattern of a song. Maybe a trumpet or a piano chord would splash against it, or maybe Spear would pound out a rhythm on his array of percussion instruments. In any case, either stated or implied, the beat kept moving and the crowd kept grooving to the comforting heartbeat pulse of this quintessential, old-school reggae.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 8, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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