Montreal International Reggae Festival Place Bonsecours / Quai Jacques Cartier, Montreal QC July 13 to 15

Going into its fourth year, the Montreal International Reggae Festival continued its ambitious programming, with two-thirds of the classic line-up of Black Uhuru as its big ticket. Both the focus and the format of the festival were different this year. Kymani Marley headlined the free Friday night show, which in the past had been a main stage event. In contrast, a number of VIP options were introduced such as a travel package that combined luxury accommodation, exclusive seating at paid events and access to a boat cruise on the St. Lawrence featuring MIRF’s Year One headliner Luciano. Although each day’s free stage performances were pretty marginal in the early part of the afternoon, this represented important exposure for local talent — and despite middling weather throughout the weekend, who can complain about hours of free music on the picturesque Place Bonsecours? Nevertheless, any momentum gathered from Friday afternoon’s slate was lost on Kymani Marley, who proved to be the dullest of the Marley offspring. The next night’s show was kicked off by local legend Jah Cutta, who gave it his all in support of his recent album. The first international act was Turbulence, making good on his cancelled appearance the previous year. He started strong, but finished weak with too many conscious but turgid jams. Veteran dancehall DJ Admiral Bailey snapped the crowd back to attention with his set, one of the festival highlights. When he got the thousands-strong crowd to sing along to his definitively slack "Punanny,” the atmosphere was electric. I Wayne came next; he had a delicate singing style that involved a strange approach to harmony, as if he were singing the quarter-tones between notes — but did so consistently even when singing falsetto. The next act, Gyptian, is huge in Jamaica right now; his burred "R” vocal hook seemed to unlock some sort of secret female hormone, and he worked it into every second word as if auditioning for a Tim Horton’s coffee commercial. After a long delay, Black Uhuru touched down amidst a steady downpour. Michael Rose, who’d rejoined the rudderless group two years ago, has improved as a vocalist, retaining his youthful power while offering new phrasing techniques. Duckie Simpson, the other principal, merely looked cool on stage while his few vocal contributions simply did not mesh with the other harmony singer. The backing band were more than competent on the verses and choruses of each tune, but didn’t bring the same power to the live dub stylings that Sly and Robbie perfected some 25 years ago in Uhuru’s heyday. While it was a good set, expectations were sky high and could not be entirely satisfied. Sunday’s show started with a Toronto showcase featuring the soulful Steele and classy veteran Tanya Mullings. Following Kirk Davis was another of the festival’s highlights: Queen Ifrica. The Queen is a major talent, a first class singjay who won over a curious crowd almost instantly. Her mentor, Tony Rebel, followed her set with the best stage presence of any performer — totally at ease whether crooning, belting out his early dancehall hits, or just joshing with the crowd. Then the inevitable wait… Frankie Paul was due to perform next but didn’t show, and in a show of poor form, the stage MCs never admitted as much. Headliners Third World were anticlimactic to say the least; they sounded tired and didn’t stem the tide of patrons to the exits. Strangely, of their 30-minute closing set — truncated by too much filler beforehand — half was devoted to Marley covers. A guest appearance by Luciano raised temperatures a bit, but that was the sole excitement. Although the midnight boat cruise was the much-hyped closing event of the festival, media access was strictly forbidden — even with an all access pass. Apparently, it was a sold-out success, with Luciano singing his heart out right up until the P.A. was cut when the ship docked at 3 a.m. This edition of the festival was not as consistent as the previous year, with too much filler and poor pacing. Still, it remains worthwhile, and should bounce back strong next year.