Published Jan 17, 2011When the rum in your coke is Wray and Nephew overproof, you know the evening won't be a total loss. Unfortunately, the reunion of legendary rocksteady/reggae band Heptones came off as a little less than perfect.
First of all, there were just two out of three Heptones, leader Leroy Sibbles and harmonist Barry Llewellyn (third member Earl Morgan has been absent for years). This twosome had played in California fairly recently, so it was not entirely accurate to call this a 35th anniversary reunion as the pre-show news release had indicated. Nevertheless, any Toronto gig by Sibbles was bound to be a special occasion, as he proved at Harbourfront two years ago.
A succession of openers held forth with soul stylings and well-worn covers of "Stand By Me" and several tunes from the late great Gregory Isaacs. In a reaction that was to typify the night, the over-40 crowd would lustily acknowledge a favourite then gradually lose interest when any given singer couldn't quite match up to the august material.
Into this impatient but still forgiving scene walked the Heptones. Sibbles, well over six feet, is their natural focus on stage. Surprisingly, Llewellyn was relegated to one of three backing singers, a clear demotion from their classic trio formation. It was hard to tell if he was pleased about his station, but he wasn't exactly oozing enthusiasm.
The Heptones catalogue is so deep with hits that pretty much every song should guarantee a "rewind and come again" from the audience, but it quickly became apparent that this was not a well-oiled machine. "Party Time" opened the show and the band was admirably deep and heavy, with a dose of jazzy keyboard work. They played it with the Studio One arrangement (as opposed to their re-recording with Lee "Scratch" Perry), as this show was as much a celebration of Sibbles pivotal role at the label. But the competence of the band, quite high for the early openers, started to fall apart as the evening went on.
When Sibbles had the stage to himself to showcase the many songs he had written for Studio One (including "Full Up," on which Musical Youth's "Pass the Dutchie" is based), the wheels came off for the band almost completely. Borrowing the bassist's axe, Sibbles attempted to set off a full-on dub session, but the band simply fluffed the instructions he gave them. The nadir was when he had to stop the eternal "Satta Massagana" dead in its tracks in order to teach the trumpet player his part.
Surprisingly, the singing got stronger after this point, even though Sibbles was gassed from trying to hold things together. Despite what looked to be a lack of rehearsal, the show was a good time, thanks to Sibbles's lively banter with his bredren from Toronto, his hometown for nearly two decades. And let's face it, the crowd wasn't full of young firebrands ready to get ill at the slightest misstep -- this was Date Night, roots reggae style. And they weren't about to let a few musical mishaps stand in the way of Wray and Nephew.