J e suis irie! In what can only be described as a Random Act of Jah, two internationally famed reggae acts simultaneously performed across town from each other last Thursday here in Colorado Springs.
Out on the east side, Pato Banton — who's best known for his collaborations with UB40 and the English Beat — was holding court at the Mighty Culture Sports Bar & Grill. But for my money, the place to be was Spice Island Grill, the tiny Jamaican restaurant tucked away behind the downtown Antlers Hilton. There, with virtually no advance publicity, reggae's legendary Mighty Diamonds were playing what amounted to the stealth gig of the year.
I can't say I was entirely optimistic, having seen numerous other high-profile reggae acts perform U.S. dates with pickup musicians who were too stoned to know which songs they were playing. Between that and the show's billing as a celebration of Bob Marley's 70th birthday, it was easy to imagine a lackluster set of "I Shot the Sheriff" and "No Woman, No Cry" covers from a band trying to figure out why its tour of mid-sized venues included a stop at an out-of-the-way restaurant that could barely hold 40 people.
But that's the opposite of what happened. Instead, the nattily attired original Trenchtown harmony trio — Donald "Tabby" Shaw, Fitzroy "Bunny" Simpson and Lloyd "Judge" Ferguson — were backed by four top-flight Jamaican musicians for an inspired, nearly two-hour set that did their 45-year legacy proud.
Once the four-piece backing band set the mood with dub-heavy versions of songs like The Abyssinians' "Satta Massagana," the trio stepped out front to deliver Motown-worthy harmonies that were as breathtaking as ever.
Apart from a smart rendition of Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up" and a rock-steady cover of The Melodians' "Swing and Dine," the show was given over to Mighty Diamonds' originals, from the Marcus Garvey shout-outs of "I Need a Roof" to the sweet lover-rock of "Party Time" to the obligatory stoner anthem "Pass the Kouchie" (which is better known outside Jamaica for Musical Youth's drug-free cover version, "Pass the Dutchie").
All in all, the show was up there with concerts I've seen by Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and, yes, Bob Marley. Actually, if I can be forgiven the sacrilege, it was better.
For those who want to celebrate Marley's birthday on the day itself, Spice Island Grill will also be hosting a tribute Friday by Aurora band The Lion SoulJahs. Then on Saturday, look for local reggae band Be Positive to throw their own Marley bash at Rasta Pasta.
Meanwhile, for the more Americana-inclined, this Saturday's Benefit for Tornado Victims in Columbia, Mississippi at the Ancient Mariner is bound to please. The show will feature Joe Johnson and his band with guest artists Conor Bourgal, Grant Sabin, Grass It Up members David Jeffrey and Shannon Carr, and the J. Miller Band.
The event is a labor of love for Johnson, who grew up just a couple miles outside Columbia.
"It's a really small town, and that small-town spirit of helping your neighbor is probably something ingrained in me from growing up there," says the musician, who last visited back in September while touring down South. "I spent two days off there — best two days I've ever wasted on tour. I had my kids with me this time out, so it was great for them to get to see some of what I experienced growing up."
Proceeds from the event will go to residents who lost their homes to the tornado back in late December. "I couldn't imagine not pitching in to help," says Johnson, "even from so far away."