MAHAIWE PERFORMING ARTS CENTER
Toots and the Maytals
Sunday, November 4, 2012
Review by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass.) – Some fifty years into his career, one can’t begrudge Toots Hibbert the desire to kick back and be casual onstage. Which is just what the reggae pioneer is doing on his current acoustic tour, which stopped at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Sunday night. Reportedly to be in conjunction with Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of independence from Britain, and in the wake of the release of Unplugged on Strawberry Hill, an album of acoustic versions of Toots and the Maytals’s greatest hits, the stripped-down concert was a relaxed affair – kind of like having Hibbert show up with a few musician friends, parking in your living room, and performing an informal hootenanny.
Hibbert was a genial performer, introducing most of his songs with the stories behind how they came to be written (even acknowledging that there are true and false stories about some of them, and not always being exactly clear which stories he was telling). He accompanied himself ably if unspectacularly on acoustic guitar, and was backed only by a percussionist and a bassist, with two female singers rounding out the top end.
These stripped-down, MTV Unplugged-style arrangements of the Maytals’s classic reggae served to uncover the folk and spiritual essence of what lie at their heart. Sometimes, it was a revelation that such simplicity undergirded such profound classics of the last 50 years. Other times, it merely served to emphasize the sing-songy, nursery-rhyme style writing of some of the two-chord tunes – even on a classic like “Pressure Drop.” Or on “Do the Reggay,” which devolved into a kitschy spelling lesson.
Hibbert was in fine voice, however, and he didn’t hold back vocally. He’s a soul singer at heart, and “True Love Is Hard to Find” and his cover of Otis Redding’s “Dreams to Remember” were acutely moving.
Something was lost, however, without the full rhythmic attack that so defines reggae. Indeed, much of the distinctive qualities of reggae were lost, leaving only the sinuous, folky melodies. Depending on your point of view, this was either a revelation or a huge disappointment. Over the course of nearly two hours, what it mostly meant was a sense of sameness and a lack of dynamics. It rendered upbeat, powerful bits of rock-reggae like “Monkey Man” and “54-46 Was My Number” and James Brown-style funk like “Funky Kingston” as deracinated folk jams.
The legend and legacy of Toots and the Maytals deserves better.