It may not have felt very tropical inside the air-conditioned MCI Center on Saturday night, but a lively Caribbean party featuring reggae legends and a legend-in-the-making made you forget the chill.
The first D.C. Oneness Reggae Festival featured a rare and moving appearance by Bunny Wailer, the last living member of the original Wailers. He shared the spotlight with Luciano, who seems ready to carry on the spiritual and musical tradition established by Bob Marley and whose set was a nonstop religious revival-dance party that combined the best aspects of reggae.
The last time Washington fans had an opportunity to see Wailer was 10 years ago, when he played at the Warner Theatre. On Saturday night, when the term "living legend" was thrown around liberally, Wailer (born Neville O'Riley Livingston) showed he hasn't lost any of the energy and vocal skills that helped make him, Marley and Peter Tosh the undisputed trinity of reggae from the time they first recorded together as the Wailers in the 1960s.
Wailer paid tribute to his colleagues starting with the first song. Before even greeting the crowd, he seated himself at the front of the stage and began striking a drum painted in the red, gold and green of the Ethiopian flag, which led to a moving, bare-bones version of "Rastaman Chant." He later spoke reverently of Marley, who died in 1981, and sang "Crazy Baldheads" in his honor. He dedicated his next song, the pro-marijuana "Legalize It," to the "controversial and militant" Tosh, who was killed in Jamaica in 1987.
Wailer, who is known largely for his affiliation with Marley and Tosh, also has an impressive musical history of his own, and sang many tracks from his landmark album "Blackheart Man," including the hit "Dream Land." His voice was strong and his feet were light as he danced throughout the set, closing with a medley of old Wailers songs including "Simmer Down," "Walk the Proud Land" and "I'm the Toughest." For an artist who could draw a crowd on the strength of his name alone, Wailer showed an impressive sense of professionalism and showmanship.
Luciano treated the crowd to a high-energy, spiritual and fast-paced set that embodied the festival's "oneness" theme with smooth vocals, simple melodies and powerful messages of unity and racial harmony.
Taking the stage in a loose-fitting green and pink robe and holding a staff, he had the crowd dancing and singing along from his opener, "He Is My Friend." In a performance that seamlessly linked his themes with hit after hit, including "Sweep Over My Soul," "It's Me Again Jah," "Your World and Mine" and the country-gospel "Lord Give Me Strength," Luciano was ably backed by the Firehouse Crew, in particular saxophonist Dean Fraser.
He merged music and message most effectively with "In This Together": "I guess I'm not the only one who'd like to see mankind living in tranquillity/ And if only we agree, we can live in unity/ We're all in this thing together/ Can't we all just live as one?"
The venue seemed an odd match for the show, which drew several thousand people--enough to turn the floor seats into one large dance hall but too few to fill more than a smattering of the first- and second-tier seats. (Why a handful of people chose to watch from the faraway sky boxes is anyone's guess.)
The event also lacked a festival feel because of the District's juvenile-curfew law. The last set ended before 11:30, when many reggae concerts would just be getting started. Trinidad's David Rudder opened the show a little after 6 o'clock with a mix of reggae and calypso that stirred things up, particularly after he warned the mostly seated attendees that their chairs were their "enemies" and that sitting could lead to "a permanent case of rigor mortis."
Many people consider calypso merely "jump-around" music, Rudder said, but he showed its political side with "Chant of a Madman," a critique of hypocritical and dishonest politicians. By the time he closed with his Carnival hit "High Mass," most everyone had taken his advice to get up and join the party.
The set by Toots and the Maytals was marred by technical problems that took away from lead singer Toots Hibbert's usually powerful vocals. A charismatic showman who has sung ska, rock, reggae and soulful gospel equally well over more than three decades, Hibbert gave it his all, especially on "Time Tough," "Sweet and Dandy" and "54-46 (That's My Number)," but he was less successful than the other acts in getting the crowd involved.