Montreal International Reggae Festival Montreal, QC - July 14 to 16, 2006

The third edition of this festival featured a change in direction. Rather than trying to bank on established legends, this year most of the talent was contemporary and there were a few diasporic reggae picks that raised eyebrows. Night one’s first international performer was Trinidad’s Marlon Asher, who brought the crowd to life with his big hit, "Ganja Farmer.” Next up was a three-act reggaeton showcase — one of the MIRF’s gambles. On the whole, this paid off with Fulanito bringing some bootiful beats and Voltio crunking up some merengue. The night’s headliner was Shaggy. I wasn’t looking forward to his shtick but was astonished by the calibre of the show he put on. This was a true road-hardened, super-professional performance by a man who’s sold ten million records. With good, old-fashioned showmanship, impeccable pacing and a musician magazine precision to the band, Shaggy was a most pleasant surprise. The next night, Rebel Tumbao took a nice idea — salsa-fied Marley — and overcooked it with shrill, overly complex arrangements. After a few more acts, news broke that Turbulence and Ky-Mani Marley had cancelled, sending a ripple of discontent through the crowd. To their credit, the MCs kept the show on an even keel by swiftly bringing out Natural Black. His highlight was his big hit, "Far From Reality,” based on the "Seasons” rhythm, which was inescapable for the three-day festival. Fantan Mojah came next with burly fury. As long as he kept up his energy, he was fine, but when things slowed down, he had less to offer. Richie Spice headlined and as a bonus brought along his brother Spanner Banner, an even bigger hit maker back in the day. Despite some pacing issues to his closing set, ultimately everyone went home happy despite the cancellations. The last night’s entertainment got started with Trini ball of fire Sherwin Gardner, whose gospelised blend of dancehall and jazz came together remarkably well. Maxi Priest was far more energetic than when I had seen him at the height of his crooner superstardom in the late ’80s. If anything, his set suffered from too few nods to the ladies — even "Close To You” was delivered with a raging backbeat. Mutuburuka proved his status as one of Rastafari’s most individual thinkers with controversial poetry and monologues. The festival was capped off by the evergreen Barrington Levy. Although he didn’t have enough time for all his hits, he showed that his voice was in fine shape after all these years, sending fans into a frenzy with classics like "Too Experienced.”