Newspaper articles, album features and live reviews are vitally important for any new band starting off. The lazy platitudes and genre pigeonholing of an act in its inception will stick with them for the rest of their careers, regurgitated and reproduced every time a journalist looks for something to define their sound and spirit. But, for a band as influential, as timeless and as universally enjoyed as The Wailers, there is nothing more to say that has not already been said. All you can do is simply stand back and admire how, in the space of two short hours, they turn a typically dark, dreary and sodden British summer evening into a sun-kissed celebration that wouldn’t be out of place on any Kingston sea-front.
With the release of Kevin McDonald’s critically-acclaimed documentary, ‘Marley’, earlier this year, interest in the band and their most famous former son, is as concentrated as it has ever been. With a multitude of top ten singles and albums under their Lion of Judah emblazoned belts, The Wailers could have easily sat back and taken it easy as the packed-full O2 Academy crowd belted every song back at them (albeit, with far worse faux-Jamaican accents), but it is a tribute to their consummate professionalism that Marley’s right hand man and the anchor in an ever-rotating line up, only second to Mark E. Smith and The Fall, Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett (a reference to his, alleged, 40 children), and his self-collated Wailers band, put on a faultless performance that is the perfect antidote to any summer (or lack of it) blues. This is as close to the real thing as anyone in the crowd tonight will ever get, or at least until we see a tasteless hologram beamed out to the skies at the behest of a money-hungry festival organiser, and the crowd savour every second of it.
There is little effort made to move on or forget Bob Marley tonight and why should there be? With lighters, badges, and satchels adorned with the red, gold and green of the Rastafari on sale at the back - alongside Rasta Candles (proudly home made in the Britain’s well known answer to Jamaica, Northumberland) embellished with Marley’s instantly recognisable dreadlocked face - this is a celebration of The Wailers’ influence and importance, regardless of the line-up. It is churlish to suggest anyone could replace Bob Marley, but no one here is trying to. Koolant Brown, captivating at the front of the stage, reaches out to the audience and up to the heavens simultaneously as he swings and bounds around the stage, clearly a man who is relishing and revelling in every second of performing such perfectly constructed songs, their message universal and their popularity unwavering. Starting slowly with an instrumental melody and lesser known album tracks ‘Natural Mytsic’, ‘Positive Vibration’ and ‘Trenchtown Rock’, The Wailers soon draw upon a back catalogue of songs any band would be enviable of. In between prayers and blessings to Jah and the Rastafari, the ever engrossing and enchanting Koolant whips his dreads, and the ever willing, crowd into a frenzy that grows and grows as the hits are reeled off, his vitality and energy translating and feeding into the songs giving them a freshness and urgency that keeps them sounding as contemporaneous as ever. An exhaustive stream of euphoric sing-alongs commences and ‘Is This Love?’ ‘Roots Rock Reggae’, ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ and One Love’ can’t help but leave you with a smile on your face and a spring in your skanking step. The customary, but nonetheless very welcome, encore is met with rapturous applause. And as hard as it seems, The Wailers routinely better themselves – lighters are proudly held high to ‘Redemption Song’ and ‘No Woman, No Cry’ before fittingly and finally ‘Exodus’ brings the party to the end.
Marley’s ethos and message is reflected in the diversity of the crowd –from middle class and middle aged couples awkwardly two-stepping at the back, through to big booted and balding ska-heads letting loose at the front, to dreadlocked post-graduates slowly rocking back and forth toward the mirror in the bathroom, humming the bass line to ‘Jamming’. This is the sort of music that you cannot help but move to, uplifting, heartfelt harmonies that together, under the slight fog of smoke lingering above the crowd, render cuts, debts, bankers and job losses, for just a moment, meaningless and it really does seem like “every little thing is gonna be alright”.
Patrick managed to grab some time with Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrettat their gig at the 02 Academy Leeds
Don’t Panic:Firstly I wanted to ask about your work with the World Food Programme. In 2010 you contributed a song ‘A Step For Mankind’ towards the album ‘A Solution For Dreamers, Vol. 3’, with all the proceeds going towards battling hunger worldwide, what motivates you to be involved with the WFP and why do you feel it is so important?
Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett: We are helping people globally and we value the knowledge and understanding we gain from both sides of our work. We appreciate that the UN came around to help feed people and save lives and, in a world with too much genocide and pain, we are proud to be a part of it. We have gone to some desolate areas in South America and seen the good this work can do.
Don’t Panic: You’ve recently spent three nights supporting The Stone Roses at Heaton Park, how did you feel that went?
Family Man: People speak different languages all over the world but, wherever we go, people can relate to the music and the message. They celebrate it and appreciate it and we like being here to do that. The work of Jah Jah is reaching out to the people. Hallelujah!
Don’t Panic: Can you describe to me the beginnings of The Wailers? And how do you feel, in the 40 years since, things have changed in the band and in the reggae music scene itself?
Family Man: Imagine you’re getting started, doing a ting and coming with the music. And there is many, many types of music out there – rich, fat music of all sorts – and it’s a competition. You got soul, you got funk, jazz, meringue, soca and samba, then we come with a music called reggae! You could feel it. It challenged people. We love to read the bible, you know? Most people go to church but we not what you call a Christian, we see the Jah Jah way. We like a club, in another church.
Don’t Panic: Why do you believe that the music and the message of The Wailers is still so powerful, popular and resonant to this day?
Family Man: As Bob Marley say, all we ever have is redemption songs . These are songs of freedom and universal songs. Love songs like I love you, you love me, let’s get together and feel alright! Global love, you know? You have to learn to love yourself and others and share the ting, not to fight.
Don’t Panic: As the last remaining original member of The Wailers, what is it that drives you to continue playing these songs and spreading this message? What is the secret to your longevity?
Family Man: There’s only one Wailers band and this is the band that Family Man put together. I am the musical arranger. We started off in Kingston, Jamaica, and we’re just musicians playing the instruments. We get together in the studio and we play. We lost a few people on the way, Al Anderson and Peter Tosh, they go off for their own reasons, but we carry on just like that.
Don’t Panic: Do you enjoy playing in the UK? You’ve supported The Stone Roses, and played Bestival in 2010 – are the crowds any different to those you’ve experienced elsewhere?
Family Man: England is my first international working ground from 1969. We have many good memories and we love it here. We recorded two albums here in Island Studios on 22 St Peter Square and this is where we met Junior Marvin, nosing around our corner. People here get the true reggae music but we don’t get to come too often so I tell them, as soon as the promoters and agents get it together, The Wailers will travel, man, we’re always ready!
Don’t Panic: Are you currently working on new music to play under The Wailers name that you can incorporate into your live performances alongside the older songs? And what are your favourite of the older Wailers’ songs to perform live?
Family Man: Well all the music we play, I arrange and produce them and I’ve been doing this for a long time. We still playing all the favourites and the audience appreciate that but we are working on new music too. We’re taking it slowly but surely! And, I like playing ‘So Much Things To Say’, also ‘Guiltiness’ too. And anything from ‘Rastaman Vibrations’, like, of course, ‘Roots, Rock, Reggae’ because we want the people to see we are bubbling up on stage, you know?
Don’t Panic: Do you have any young, up and coming, favourite acts in the reggae music scene today that you yourself enjoy or can recommend?
Family Man: I don’t get to hear them all but there are a few that I like and some that we work with, like Duane Stephenson and Koolant Brown. I love what Anthony B say too – “everybody wants to raid the barn, but nobody wants to plough the corn”! And, of course, The Wailers are just as fresh as ever. I always say we are like the moon, because the older it gets, the brighter it shines.
Don’t Panic: To what degree do you see the influence of The Wailers in the current music of today?
Family Man: The Wailers and Bob Marley meant so much to the world. All these new gadgets and all this new technology is based on the roots, the reggae, you know? We see our style in many bands home and abroad, there is no end to this music. I can recall in 1973-74 there was a big talk in the music industry, in San Francisco, about the drum and the bass. They used to put too much on top, you know? Too much strings and horns, so we stripped it back and think – what are the first instruments in music? The drums. In Africa they were used to carry messages across the valley and villages, so we adapted that principle, put it through the trap drum, and we feel it in the one drop!
Don’t Panic: Finally, what does the future hold for The Wailers?
Family Man: We are going to carry on the charity work, you know? And we enjoy playing a great part in that. We raised $15,000 in just one event recently and, over the past two years, we’ve raised over $150,000. We keep on working and we keep on going. We’re workaholics and we’re ordinary people doing extraordinary work. We are volunteers chosen from the heavens to come down to this earth. We spread the message and that is what we’ll always do.