What a strange life it must have been for members of Bob Marley’s band The Wailers. Thrust into international stardom from their humble beginnings in Trench town, Kingston, the reggae royalty are said to have sold in excess of 40 million albums. And whilst few could understand the kind of shadow Bob Marley– legend, prophet and poet -must cast, if the band members touring today feel daunted by that, they certainly don’t show it. Al Anderson, one of the last people to speak with Marley before his passing, brought new members Chet (Lead Vocals / Guitar), Omar (Bass Guitar), Paapa (Drums), and Adrian (keyboard) with him to Australian shores this month and I was fortunate enough to get along to their Brisbane show.
Almost immediately, during their opener, I Shot The Sheriff, The Wailers let punters know that they’re not out to duplicate those old times, nor to try to replace Bob. Wise choice. The sound is fuller than one might expect of a reggae set, and though later in the night Chet allows himself to channel some of Bob’s canonical tone and articulation, in the first few songs he sings purposefully with a higher pitch, again letting us know this is about respect, not replication. His use of ululation early on though also signals that he’s here for a good time. Stir it up comes next and dreadlocked Chet is heartened by the near capacity crowd echoing every lyric. He tells us “the singalong continues”. I was so glad to see Brisbane come out actually – it had been a scorcher of a day. 34 degrees at some point and I, like many I suspect, couldn’t remember if Triffid’s old airline hangar was airconditioned. It is … but the warmth of the night emanated regardless. A warmth that comes from Bob’s enduring message of peace and love, one love in fact; a message the world feels like it needs right now. Indeed, at one point Chet stresses that they’re all about love – still , not just romantic love, but brotherly love, neighbourly love, love for your family and friends. He asks us to come together and share that love “grab the person next to you and tell them you love them” he implores. We do.
Could You Be Loved conveniently follows. Here, each of the guitarists is let stray a little and I start to really notice their uncharacteristic use of overdrive pedals. Though the echoey effect – a near constant throughout the set- is quite different to Marley’s own guitar tone that was fatter, chunky even, it somehow works. During Three Little Birds the band again suggests the crowd “sounds wonderful”. My girlfriend laughs and says she’s not sure but… at a gig like this, it’s hard not to believe at least that, every little thing is gonna be alright. In some ways, I wish Adrian’s keyboard was foregrounded more in this and some later tunes and the absence of some reggae staples like the single strumming and stripped back tone are noticeable. But when Is this Love starts, any at all doubts and fears fall by the wayside and the message of the music is tangible in the room; smellable even. Like many songs, this one is extended to allow individual members, this time American born Al Anderson, to showcase their skills. It’s easy to see why Bob Marley, and later Peter Tosh, picked Al so many years ago. His skill as a lead guitarist are unquestionable and he uses the spotlight in this song to veer off track, taking us on a mind-altering journey, more psychedelic rock than reggae. Though next year, Al tells us, will mark 50 years of playing with or for Bob, he is far from a ‘has been’. The lead guitarist, has also worked with the likes of Ben Harper and Lauren Hill and has received multiple Grammy nominations, including one in 2013.
At this point, I am not sure if the daze in the room has gotten to me or if the trancey echo of the hangar has simply been misplaced. Everything seems slower- a relaxed Jamaican pace takes over. During Legalize It, a track recorded with Peter Tosh, it is Paapa Nyarkoh’s turn to take centre stage. He does so with ease, reminding us, oddly that drums are utterly pivotal to reggae music, its heartbeat if it were. The ultra relaxed Hypocrites off the Songs of Freedom album is next and helps to highlight Bob’s undeniable lyricism and genius for word play. Anyone who knows the original track will also appreciate that this was the sound of the night – a more dub sound with amp-reliant guitar. During No Woman, No Cry, the original Wailer himself, Al, extends the song with another brilliant guitar solo. It’s starting to feel like they are wrapping up – they have played for an hour and certainly no one would leave disappointed. The reggae royalty leave the stage.
But the crowd’s roar, spurred all the more by keyboardist, Adrian, coming out to psyche us up, entice the 5 piece crew to grace the stage again. Jamming begins the list of encores and ends with bassist and drummer, brothers in arms and in real life, joining for an impromptu jam themselves. Their improvisation turns jazz-like at one stage and the Brisbane crowd were certainly enjoying it, screaming their support. At this point, original Wailer Anderson reflects with us. He describes Australia and New Zealand as having always supported the band. The U.S and U.K were slower to appreciate us he explains. “We were too slow.. and they were hesitant to give up their disco”. Anderson also takes the opportunity to encourage the crowd to show their support on social media, where they’re looking forward to giving away lots of merch, Stratocasters even. Speaking of merch, we’re reminded too that fans can grab albums, t-shirt and more outside. “It’s not a hustle” he stresses, but can help them continue touring. Though he toured more during Bob’s time, a love for the stage is still visible. Anderson tells us he loves Australia and prays for our first nations people, for all people in fact. Song of the divine, released in 2022, comes next. This is a very spiritual song, Anderson has said, its laid back floating sound cannot help but relax the crowd further. The set ends with Buffalo Soldier. Though only posthumously released in 1983 after Marley’s death, it has become one of his most revered tracks. It is perhaps no coincidence that this was the only really political song of the night. With war and famine, hate and division persisting today, The Original Wailers chose instead, at least primarily, to remind us of love and light. The entire hangar shakes when the crowd join in to Buffalo Soldier’s chanted hook “woe yoy yoy, woe yoy yoy yoy”. What a treat to have our voices rise with- at least one of- the legends Bob Marley created with. This ska, come Rastafarian reggae tribe have undoubtedly changed the music world forever. Let us hope it is not too late for their message of love to change the world too.