Review: Toots and the Maytals inject sunny, soulful reggae into Jannus Live in St. Petersburg
The first time Donald Trump hosted Saturday Night Live in 2004, the musical guests were reggae legends Toots and the Maytals. It's hard to say which was the stranger booking, the billionaire developer who'd stumbled into reality-TV fame, or the Jamaican old-schoolers who back in the '60s actually helped popularize the word reggae.
But now that Trump has been elected president (chew on THAT, time traveler from 2004), and a reeling nation is deeply and bitterly divided as a result, this might be the perfect week for a little more Toots Hibbert in our lives.
On Thursday at Jannus Live, the 73-year-old’s sunny and soulful energy permeated any sense of communal cultural dread that might’ve enveloped the crowd going in. The group’s first local concert since 2010 – part of their first full tour since 2013 – let the crowd forget about politics and embark on a journey through the history of reggae, ska and soul.
This was different from the steady slate of reggae-ish bands that breeze through Jannus on a semi-weekly basis. Toots and the Maytals have been at this more than a half-century, and they have the hits to prove it – like opening tracks Treat Me Bad, from 1964, and Pressure Drop, from 1968. The all-ages crowd sang along to both, dancing and skanking as Hibbert rocked away from above.
Long one of reggae’s most charismatic bandleaders, Hibbert is moving a little slower than he used to, but still dancing and shuffling and hopping when the beat hits him just right.
Uplifting selections like Never Grow Old and Sweet and Dandy saw Hibbert rasping and wailing like a pained but powerful soul man, blending Pentecostal passion with the easy demeanor of a performer who’s done it for decades. The band found plenty and extreme joy in covers of Louie Louie and Take Me Home, Country Roads; and one of their signature hits Funky Kingston remained a steam engine of feel-good funk and ska, with stutter-step riffs that were begging for an army of brass.
While it was inspiring to hear Toots and the Maytals blast out living history lessons like 1969’s ska classic Monkey Man and 1968’s Do the Reggay – the song that effectively named the genre – they also offered a few dollops of reggae’s protest-song side. Time Tough’s soul-revue feel belied its lyrical angst: “Today is judgment day / and that’s why everyone have to pray.” And the gentle 1966 song Bam-Bam (“I am the man who fight for the right, not for the wrong”) simmered like something waiting to explode.
“Believe in yourself,” Hibbert said at one point. “Believe in God. And you shall never be weary.”
Such positivity is contagious. On closer 54-46 (That's My Number), an overzealous fan hopped the barrier and ran on stage to dance. Security tried to drag her away, but when Hibbert saw her, he beamed and waved them off for a few minutes.
“Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” he sang, shimmying around the stage after a closing boogie-woogie breakdown.
However they feel about President-elect Trump, everyone left Toots and the Maytals’ show in just a little better mood than when they came in. This week, that’s gotta count for something.
-- Jay Cridlin