Thanks to Bobby Schenk, AKA Reggae Rob, for submitting this week’s blog post–a review of the Max Romeo concert last month at WOW Hall!
When Max Romeo took the stage at WOW Hall this past month on April 4th, I had three things running through my head:
One: I am in the presence of a reggae legend.
Max Romeo is not just any reggae artist; he is a part of the cadre of musicians that helped innovate and found the roots-reggae genre in Jamaica in the 1960s and 1970s. His music, with songs like “Wet Dream” and “Let The Power Fall”, is famous in its own right, as well as in other records that sample Romeo’s work. The song “I Chase The Devil,” off of his seminal album War Ina Babylon (released in 1976) has been sampled in more than 30 songs according to whosampled.com, with rappers such as Jay-Z and The Prodigy building off of Max Romeo’s talent.
Now, combine this legendary status with his physical presence: Romeo is around five foot five and his dreadlocks almost reach his feet. He is wearing a black tank top and cargo pants. He is sweating beneath the lights on stage. But although he might look small, Max Romeo knows how to work a crowd. When Max sings, the audience goes silent, straining to absorb every lyric, word and “JAH, RASTAFARI” he yells as he performs his set. When he dances, he grooves through the air, his movements smooth and subtle. The air in the hall is heavy with musical, almost religious, awe. And I haven’t even gotten to his singing yet.
Two: Though Romeo is 75 this year, his voice sounds like dusty crystal; sharp but aged, like the warmth of a worn record.
This man has been singing for over 40 years. He has released 26 albums, and has put out double that number in singles and compilation albums. If I recorded half that amount of material, I would retreat to my residence-of-choice and recede from the public eye, eating grapes and guava while staring at the ocean. Instead, Romeo is STILL touring and recording; his most recent album, Horror Zone, was released in 2016 and was critically acclaimed by Pitchfork. Erin MacLeod called it “an exhilarating collection of roots and reggae.” And when I’m watching Max perform, MacLeod’s words echo in my head. Watching Romeo is exhilarating, brilliant, soulful; he makes you forget that your rent is late, that you need to buy groceries, that your car is broken. Max Romeo’s music grounds you in the present, right here, right now. And when I heard those famous words, “Lucifer, son of the morning!” you can bet I danced until I was blue in the face.
Three: I wish there were more people here.
It’s hard to compete with groups of 21-year-old guitar players when you’re 74. Despite Max Romeo’s cultural significance, his importance and contribution to not just reggae, but to the development of music in general is not reflected in the size of the crowd. It’s sad to see such a pioneer fade away in collective memory, as all pioneers do. What the crowd lacked in size, however, it made up for in spirit. I yelled myself hoarse for Max Romeo, skanked to delightful ska-voovee artists The Cultivators, and almost bobbed my head off my neck when DubTonic Kru took the stage. These concerts might not pull large crowds, but the people who come get more than they bargained for: not just a performance, but a cleansing of the body and soul.