Three From the Vaults – Part One: Bob Marley and the Wailers Live Forever
Three from the Vaults – new old ones from Johnny Cash, Bob Marley and the Grateful Dead
Review by Doug Heselgrave
I don’t know if it’s just me getting old, or if it’s true that a lot of the new music that comes out these days is shit, but the CDs I’m profiling here – the ones I’ve been most excited by recently – were each recorded at least two decades ago.
When I was a kid, collecting bootlegs was a hit and miss type of hobby. Recordings were very difficult to find in the pre-Internet days, and when I could find them they often sounded terrible. That’s all changed in the last decade or so as baby boomer era artists like Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead – often in an effort to stem the trade in unofficial recordings – began to issue albums of live concerts and rarities in official, high quality formats.
New sets from Bob Marley, Johnny Cash and the Grateful Dead arrived at my office the same week and since then I’ve been listening to them constantly. Each of these artists have been favourites of mine for three decades or more and despite the vast collections of their work that I’ve acquired during this time, there’s something to recommend in all of these releases.
Part One : Bob Marley and the Wailers – Live Forever
Bob Marley played his last concert on September 23, 1980 in Pittsburgh, PA, and after years in circulation in the form of low quality bootlegs, this historic show has finally been granted an official release. The story behind this show has often been told – after collapsing in Central Park while jogging to wind down from the previous night’s concert, Marley was rushed to a doctor who told him that he had only a few weeks to live. Years of relentless touring and neglecting a cancerous melanoma in his toe had resulted in the cancer spreading through Marley’s body to such an extent that it was a miracle he was able to function at all. Realizing that his career was over and against the best medical advice, Marley chose to travel to Pittsburgh to play one final show. Considered in this context, listening to ‘Bob Marley and the Wailers – Live Forever’ can be a very emotional experience.
I was fortunate enough to hear Bob Marley in concert just the year before this disc was recorded and the differences between the two performances were profound and upsetting. I remember Marley as a force of nature, twirling and cavorting around the stage in a trance as he drove his band to celestial heights as his power and commitment transformed the music into something much greater than the sum of its parts. That concert remains one of the most sublime experiences of my life, and listening to ‘Bob Marley Live Forever’ is a poignant reminder of how much we lost when Marley passed on the next year at the age of thrity-six. In truth, the show presented here does not represent Marley’s finest hour. His voice is reed thin and emanates an exhaustion that is palpable, yet time and time again one can hear Marley rally himself to deliver performances that truly defy belief and understanding.
In truth, if one was to own one Bob Marley live CD, this wouldn’t be the one to buy. ‘Bob Marley Live at the Lyceum’ from a 1975 concert in London presented the singer at the peak of his youthful confidence and showcases very rootsy Trenchtown versions of early classics which became much more polished and developed after years of subsequent touring. It remains one of the finest concert albums ever recorded. His next live set, 1979’s ‘Babylon By Bus’ was issued as a two lp souvenir of Marley’s very successful 1978 tour and demonstrates how much he had grown as an artist and performer in just three years. Two additional official live sets were issued posthumously – ‘Talkin’ Blues’ which featured a combination of early radio and concert performances from 1973 provided an excellent document of the Wailers’ music while Peter Tosh was still a member of the band, and ‘Live at the Roxy’ – while it repeated many of the songs from ‘Live at the Lyceum’ was an important historical document as it has often been touted as the concert that broke Marley’s music in America.
Marley backstage before the last concert
Given the wealth of high quality Marley recordings available, it might be tempting to give ‘Bob Marley and the Wailers Live Forever’ a miss, but that would be a mistake. From a musical perspective, the Wailers were in top form and it is often exhilarating and heartbreaking at the same time to hear them cover for their boss. Because he insisted on giving a full show and as well as a generous set of encores, the band increased the tempo slightly on each song as if by going a little faster, Marley would be able to push on through and finish the concert. As if to give him a little break and time to rest, the Wailers – who at that time were one of the tightest outfits on the road – opened up their arrangements and jammed heavily through the middle sections of many of the songs. Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett’s bass is astounding throughout and the percussion section on ‘Jamming’ is – in itself – reason enough to buy this disc.
But, of course, even in his weakened state, Marley is front and centre and undeniably the star of the show. Whether or not it is the passage of time and knowing how his story ends that colours the listener’s perceptions, hearing Marley work his way through the dynamics of ‘Exodus’, ‘Positive Vibration’ and ‘Natural Mystic’ one last time was almost more than I could take. These songs which I have heard literally thousands of times over the years long ago lost their bite and immediacy for me. Yet, hearing Bob Marley rise time and time again to deliver new songs like ‘Coming in From the Cold’, ‘Zion Train’ and ‘Could You be Loved’ – all songs which haven’t been featured on a live album before – along with his old classics was truly like hearing them for the first time.
‘Bob Marley and the Wailers Live Forever’ is like a last will and testament, a line drawn and a declaration of ‘this is who I am and this is my work.’ And, what a body of work it was! Listen and remember. And, if you can get through ‘Redemption Song’ and ‘Get Up Stand Up’ (the last song Marley ever sung with its repeating coda ‘never give up the fight’ as he left the stage) without tearing up, there’s something seriously wrong with you. Music doesn’t get any better than this.
This review also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.