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“Baby-I-love-you” music is how my neighbor Patrick describes lovers rock, reggae’s answer to all the graphic, sexual, disrespect-women songs dominating the airwaves these days. Its trademark sound involves serious crooners, usually backed by a saxophone, mellow keyboards, and a smooth, round bass line. The term, taken from a South London record label, is a relatively new name given to an old tradition that started with catchy nursery-rhyme-like lyrics sung in public to basic melody lines. With the help of Louisa Marks, the Heptones, Delroy Wilson, and Janet Kay, the genre took off at London blues parties during the ’70s, layering soul ballads atop reggae bass lines. Working-class teenagers gravitated toward lovers rock, but the music media saw it as a passing phase. One critic to this day calls it “discs by girl singers who sounded as if they were still worrying about their school reports.” Jamaican artists grew up listening to Aretha Franklin, the O’ Jays, and Curtis Mayfield. Today they’re hearing lovers-rock heroes Freddie McGregor, Glen Washington, and Benjy Myaz. Girl singers, my eye.
“Tonight you’re gonna understand every lyric,” announced promoter Tony Carr as he proudly pointed his finger out from the Crossroads stage around 11 p.m. Up to that point, DJ G-Nice had been spinning a smooth mix of classic Bob Marley and older rock-steady songs for a large crowd spanning the generations, despite almost everyone’s having to work in the morning. Splicing everything with “Lawdah mercy”s, the audience was already on its feet, spiritedly singing along. After encouraging people to come out to see Gregory Isaacs on Mother’s Day, G-Nice asked, “How many of you know what ‘brawta’ means?” The Jamaican phrase, meaning “a little more,” summoned Aaron Silk, the brother of “reality” singer Garnett Silk, to the stage.
Wearing an all-white outfit, with the beat of “If Jah Is Standing by My Side” in the background, Silk sang, “We’re treading on the righteous path to Jah,” saluting the crowd with “Jahhh!”
“Ras-ta-far-iii!” the crowd answered in unison.
“Haile Selassie I!,” he responded.
Jumping back and forth onstage, Silk sang a cover of Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” and a dedication to his brother, about picking up the Bible and getting over his blues by knowing that the gift of Jah is life. Two singers wearing black furnished the harmony, while the bass man, in shorts, bent his knees in time.
Then Benjy Myaz came forth in a backward baseball cap, an orange tie, and black slacks, with a gold hoop gleaming from his right earlobe, as if he were trying to act as a mediator between younger and older crowds. During renditions of “Give It Up,” “Lover’s Paradise,” and “Time,” Myaz kept switching mike stands every couple of minutes, and whenever his voice and stage antics were less than gripping, the pulsating instrumentation of the band kept the crowd alive. He was sounding better live than on his latest CD, Time Together, which has an unsettling synthesizer-heavy drone that I can’t force myself to listen to for long. But during his fourth tune, “Slow Down,” his singing lost tempo while the band’s tempo remained the same, and the sound coming out of the speakers grew distorted. Strapping on a guitar, Myaz played a solo that made no impact and held his right hand to his ear as if searching for the beat. He wasn’t alone: One woman held her hand up to her ear while two guys in front of me looked at the speakers and laughed. The crowd stood silently, awaiting the end of his set, when Carr brought him out for an encore, and a group of women in the back cackled. “It’s really hard work,” he countered. “Thanks for the support,” he added, before launching into a long last song.
The entertainment finally got under way when Glen Washington graced the stage in a black cowboy hat and black outfit, with gold chains around his neck, and announced in his peppery voice that he’s “torn between two lovers.” He explained that one love is a woman and the other is his music, and that if he’s in his car, he’s choosing his music. The crowd laughed. He sang, “If Loving You Is Wrong” amidst a rebirth of screams and whistles, then greeted the crowd in the name of Jesus Christ and Jah Rastafari. As the music continued, one sister held her head and rocked; a man in jeans made a continuous rectangle with his feet as if marking off his dance territory. Mixing love songs with the love of God, Washington sang, “Rise and Shine,” “One of These Days,” and “Thank You Lord,” addressing forces of evil, tribulations, and blessings. By the time he got to “Loving Pauper,” the people in the crowd were holding their hands up. One guy clutched his poster to his heart and did a slow waltz. “Can I go now?” Washington teased, knowing the audience wasn’t through with him yet.
Veteran singer Freddie McGregor brought the night, and the last performance of a six-week tour, to a proper climax. “From the crown of my head to the soles of my feet,” he blessed his followers with a mixture of old and new songs drawn from the entirety of his illustrious 20-plus-year career. People’s hands stayed up in the air for the duration of songs in perpetual salute. “Push Come to Shove” caught him doing James Brown-like twists on the stage. “Sitting in the Park” seemed to make the women up front want to pass out. “Thank you, Freddie!” one screamed.
Drenched in sweat, McGregor didn’t ease up. His long gray locks had been twisted into a braid, and he unbuttoned his shirt to give the audience even more of himself. After singing a tribute to the late singer Dennis Brown, he went trilingual. Singing “Guantanamera” in Spanish and another song in Japanese with a natural ease, he begged the crowd not to ask him what the words meant, then continued to fulfill audience requests. At the end of the show, McGregor called the other performers back out while he got behind the drums to show off. “Goddamn, this show was magnificent,” remarked the promoter at the end. The crowd seemed to agree. CP