Sly & Robbie & the Taxi Gang Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto ON August 21

You could make a lot of money betting on which artist won’t show up to a reggae show. At Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre on a cool mid-week August night, that artist was veteran Studio One singer Horace Andy, billed alongside the incomparable rhythm twins, Sly & Robbie. But while the crowd understandably missed Andy’s presence, Sly & Robbie and their Taxi Gang still delivered a scorching show that surpassed expectations and made for a prodigious night nonetheless. From the first notes of their standard opener, "Swing Easy,” it was clear that audience members were going to be schooled in dub, riddim and drum & bass. Robbie Shakespeare, dressed in a black knee-length sleeveless trench coat, wielding a Fender Jazz bass and positioned in front of three thundering Ampeg cabinets, prowled the stage directing band members Ansel Collins, Mikey Chung and Nambo Robinson in improvised dub excursions. Meanwhile, Sly Dunbar, crouched almost childlike behind an imposing Yamaha kit, to continually define and redefine the role of reggae drummer with a surgical attention to detail. With most songs dissolving into polyrhythmic drum & bass breaks that took reggae miles from its safety net, this was not a show for casual fans of classic Jamaican roots music; instead it was a "palooza” for reggae geeks, gear heads and dub aficionados. But would you expect anything less from the Neil Peart and Paul McCartney of reggae? With a set list that included many of Jamaica’s finest riddims ("Death in the Arena,” "Real Rock,” "One Step Beyond,” "Darker Shade of Black,” "Taxi Rhythm” and two prime Black Uhuru cuts: "Shine Eye Gal” and "Plastic Smile”), one of the night’s highlights was Ansel Collins’ own "Stalag 17.” Guest vocalist Cherine Anderson, the "Princess of Dancehall Soul,” helped close the night with her political hit "Kingston State of Mind.” Her soaring delivery and authoritative stage presence commanded the audience — not an easy thing to do when surrounded by legends. But it was Robbie Shakespeare that had the last word of the night; cutting a formidable figure alone on the stage he traded licks with the audience over Dennis Brown’s "Revolution” riddim before ringing out one last chord and walking off stage.