Any concert by reggae legend Toots Hibbert and his band the Maytals is pretty much a guaranteed good time, thanks to the man's catalog of classic songs that stretch back to a time before "reggae" was a word anyone outside of Jamaica had ever heard.
In fact, to hear Hibbert tell it (as he did Wednesday night at the State Room), he invented the word, and who are we to argue with him? Have you seen the guns the soon-to-be 67-year-old still likes to show off with his funky sleeveless shirts? If the man wants to claim "reggae" as starting with him, that's fine by me. The songs prove him to be a legend on par with the likes of fellow pioneers Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, that's for sure.
The twist with Wednesday's visit from Hibbert and Co. was that they are touring acoustic-style, and that proved a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the new arrangements of such familiar songs made for a fresh take on a show that many Salt Lakers have seen before when Toots & the Maytals came to town in the past. At the same time, what is typically a sweaty dance party was more of a mellow, low-key show than I've ever seen from Hibbert. I'm not complaining--it was just a different kind of show.
Hibbert's songs proved well-suited for acoustic versions, and his stellar band--a drummer, bassist and two female backup singers, all joined by opener Anders Osborne on guitar for much of the show--was equal to the task as well.
Hibbert opened up with "Reggae Got Soul," and from there, it was a non-stop stream of some of the best reggae songs ever created, including the likes of "Do The Reggay," "Celia" and "Pressure Drop." Osborne joined the band on stage with no fanfare, simply adding his dextrous picking to Hibbert's own guitar work. Osborne lent a particularly tasty solo to "True Love," and the follow-up "Sweet and Dandy" proved one of the more energetic songs of the night, eliciting a singalong from the crowd.
A cover of John Denver's "Country Roads" led into a bombastic version of "Funky Kingston," with Hibbert stalking the stage in his red leather pants and bandana, before the band rounded out the set with "Monkey Man."
Hibbert's defiance of aging is no longer a surprise, but the way his voice has remained so strong through the years is truly remarkable. Whether sitting and strumming along or bouncing on the stage and exhorting the crowd to sing along, Hibbert sounded great. The acoustic thing suits him, and if it helps keep the man on the road, taking his music to the masses, I'm all for it.
Osborne's opening set was an excellent display of how a man used to ripping through loud, aggressive and electrified guitar-rock can adjust just fine to an acoustic approach when he has serious skills. Osborne certainly fits that bill, delving into some blues and folk as well as rock via a solo turn on stage featuring songs like "Louisiana Rain." Like Hibbert, perhaps the acoustic approach frees Osborne up to explore some nuances in his songs that aren't readily apparent in their louder, electric versions.