John Holt Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto November 14

So this is the state of reggae nostalgia as we get deeper into the new millennium: it’s an infomercial. John Holt is one of Jamaica’s most beloved pop reggae turned conscious singers, but on this night he was merely the featured artist in a night devoted to a compilation celebrating the 50th anniversary of Kingston’s Randy’s recording studio/record shop/production concern. Run by the Chin family, who not coincidentally remain the most powerful family name in reggae due to their stewardship of contemporary reggae behemoth VP Records, this night was about the soft sell with gusts too hard.

But like those Time Life paid ads hosted by Peter Fonda and starring the Troggs or some such band, the preshow, MC’ed by Clive Chin, was quite entertaining. Chin regaled us with his once-hip jive about working with the Wailers, the Skatalites, and man of the hour John Holt ("Do you remember this one from back in ’73?”), as his DJ doled out one three-minute pop reggae masterpiece after another. The Randy’s DVD documentary glowed on the screen overhead, and presto, it was reggae nostalgia, mixed media style.

John Holt benefitted from this format – most of the hits in his 45-year career are tight little pop songs that work well in bite sized pieces. Holt has a repertoire of dozens and dozens of hits from "The Tide Is High” (made internationally famous by Blondie) to the trustafarian anthem "Police In Helicopter” with which to stoke a crowd. Like Gregory Isaacs at this same venue six months ago, the merest rhyming couplet was enough to provoke hearty cheers. This was a good thing because the band and the singer weren’t always on the same page as the songs wore on.

One problem with Holt’s songs is that they actually contain chord changes; a pickup band such as this, even one directed by Studio One/Sly and Robbie keyboardist Robbie Lyn couldn’t just hang on one bass line. To complicate matters, it appeared that Holt himself either blew some changes or simply couldn’t reach where he was supposed to be going harmonically. Not that his vocal tone was awful, he sounded like a reasonably well preserved, less powerful version of himself.

In combination with the band’s uncertainty, though, the show’s momentum came crashing to a halt in numerous sloppy sections. As well, Holt’s sheer number of hits meant that he couldn’t rehearse them all with the band. Much of his between song banter consisted of an a cappella verse and chorus of any given song shouted out by the audience. Holt is a true professional and handled the situation with élan. Even his hoariest material, like his covers of the maudlin "If I Were A Carpenter” and "Help Me Make It Through The Night,” were enthusiastically received.

This infomercial wrapped up an hour and a quarter later with one last blast of product placement. The overriding message to the evening was this: roots reggae fans, you can spend hundreds of dollars trying to track down these hard to find songs on your own, or you can act now and get all this great music in one attractive package! Don’t delay; John Holt is standing by to fulfill your requests! If this is the future of the past, the target market certainly approves. David Dacks