Monday, April 9, 2012

Black Uhuru Bring Roots Reggae To Early 80's Mainstream America

While much of the mainstream success that The Clash and The Police enjoyed was based on their rock and punk fueled reggae hybrids, both bands took great pains to bring reggae bands and performers on tour with them in order to pay back the musical favor.  Indeed, both bands, looking to capitalize on the popularity of reggae in the early 80's brought Black Uhuru, the "it band" of the moment, on back-to-back U.S. tours with them in 1982 (check out the picture above of the band performing "So Lonely" with The Police).   They were on a roll at the time, having released the widely acclaimed Red in 1981, one of that year’s best albums and their finest moment. Whether the realized or not, Black Uhuru exposed many young, impressionable American teens (like me) to a whole new world.  I was changed forever by seeing them live.

And so, 30 years ago this month, I was one of the lucky, young concertgoers inside the old Brendan Byrne Arena, whose mind was blown by the deep bass and drum riddims of one of the best reggae bands of all time. Brendan Byrne Arena (now the Izod Center) is a concrete fortress-like coliseum situated on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.  It has always been a bit of an eyesore and it 1982, was as an unlikely place to hear the militant steppers reggae of Black Uhuru, then at the top of their game. Yet there they were, front and center, deep in the belly of "Babylon's" belly.  The irony still amazes me.

With Black Uhuru opening the show for The Police, this was one of the very best and most complimentary double bills I have ever seen. From what I remember, a good portion of the Police's predominantly white audience didn't quite know how to take the dreads onstage belting out their provocative anthems. Fortified by the indomitable Sly Dunbar on drums, Robbie Shakespeare on bass, and the classy rhythm guitar of Mikey Chung, Black Uhuru's trio of Michael Rose, Puma Jones and Ducky Simpson churned out a collection of fierce roots rockers. Unfortunately, the crowd's perplexity kept them slightly apart from the action. However, by the set's end, Black Uhuru had made its impression.

According to a review of the April 1982 show:
It was the biggest place Black Uhuru had ever played in, though not the biggest number of people. The vast majority of the audience were still in their cars driving towards the gig when Black Uhuru took the stage, at the dot of 7.30pm. The Police, they knew, wouldn't be on till 9.30pm.

So Black Uhuru sang to those who were there, and worked their magic well. Michael Rose danced around the way he does, an inspired shaman, full of grace. Puma danced around the way she does, an elegant, sturdy, strong woman. Duckie stood glowering the way he does, a tight-lipped, almost silent partner. They look bright and beautiful, draped in colours that could carry over distance.

The guitars rang out, a clear compelling sound, and the keyboards played inventive flourishes all over the melodies, and it was sweet music. At the end Sly and Robbie did their dub outro - dubwise at the Meadowlands! - and the audience applauded. Not thunderously, not enough to get them an encore, but they didn't just run off to get another hotdog. This was by no means a small victory.
Though no recordings of Black Uhuru's early 80's U.S, tours are available, check out the band's live headlining gig from Essen, Germany right before their U.S. tour to experience their amazing energy, musicianship and hypnotic live show.

Set List

1. Shine Eye Gal
2. Plastic Smile
3. Puff She Puff
4. I Love King Selassie
5. Mondays
6. Youth Of Eglington
7. Chill Out
8. Darkness
9. Happiness
10. World is Africa
11. Sponji Reggae
12. Sensemilla
13. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner

1 comment:

Tor Hershman said...