“When you come to a show, you see people of all colors, race, having a good time, nobody fighting, just like flowers in a garden…” -Johnny Black, introducing The Expanders at Reggae Rise Up, March 4, 2017, St. Petersburg, FL
As I sit here on this uncharacteristically frigid mid-March day in northern NJ, I long to turn the clocks back precisely one week to the minute, which would put me in the warm St. Petersburg sunshine, listening to the dubby roots of local reggae band Oceanstone in anticipation of an awesome weekend at the Reggae Rise Up Florida festival. The joyful memories of a weekend full of dancing to some of the best bands in the American reggae scene, enveloped by the jubilant vibes of thousands of like-minded bredren and sistren, warm me from the inside and renders the chilly draft coming through the windows ineffectual.
Hand-painted ambiance decorated the grounds
For their third festival in western Florida, Reggae Rise Up essentially doubled in size from the previous year. They expanded from one day to two, one stage to two, from 8 bands to 26, from 40 vendors to 60, and from 6,000 fans to 14,000.
Vinoy Park is a splendid setting for a music festival (parking notwithstanding), a wide open expanse of green grass, lined with palms, alongside the waters of Tampa Bay. The collection of boats full of partying people anchored just off the sea wall added to the merriment as did the purple lighting on the trees visible after the sun had set.
The festival offered a diverse selection of interesting food and merchandise vendors. Carnivores surely loved the mouthwatering scent of grilled and smoked meat emanating from the Jamaican and Latin cuisine and southern barbecue stands, while tropical smoothies served in hollowed out pineapples and delicious acai bowls filled with fruit and other goodies provided tasty options for vegans.
By and large, the security seemed pretty chill, more there to help than to control, which is the approach I would hope for when policing a laidback reggae crowd. I didn’t see any fights or altercations or anyone getting busted or arrested. I give kudos for this as nothing can ruin the fun at a festival more quickly than a tyrannical security force.
Of course, all of this comes second to the music, which was, naturally, sublime. (I could have used a different word here, but this one seemed perfectly apropos.) With 26 bands on two stages, I thought the festival did a fantastic job of staggering the performance times so that people could catch as much music as possible. And from upon those stages, a whole lot of talent and passion entertained the excited audience.
The Movement were the first nationally touring band to perform on the main “Rise Up Stage” and they immediately got the blood flowing amongst the growing crowd with their dynamic blend of rock and reggae. Their upbeat set featured many tracks off their latest gem of an album, Golden, which will continue to propel this talented group onward and upward. After many years of hard work and several outstanding records, this still lesser-known band continues to gain more exposure with tracks in rotation on satellite radio’s reggae station, The Joint, and an opening slot on surf roots giant Slightly Stoopid’s upcoming Sounds of Summer 2017 tour.
Following The Movement, South Bay Los Angeles’ amazing Fortunate Youth kept the flow going with their rootsy jams about friendship, the healing properties of marijuana, romantic love and a heartfelt call for peace, harmony and unity. Led by one of the finest singers in the American reggae scene, Dan Kelly, 45 minutes of their enchanting sound went too quickly. To help fuel the fervor, the band lit some cigar-sized spliffs that made their way through the audience and along with their upful music, left everyone high in more ways than one.
No reggae festival would truly be complete without at least one Jamaican artist and festivalgoers were next treated to the contemporary dancehall sounds of Protoje. His energizing performance had many bouncing on their feet.
As the sun made its way closer to the horizon, the most mellow moment of the weekend for me followed with the scaled-down, acoustic performance of Hawaii-based professional surfer and model, Landon McNamara. Sounding like a mix of Jack Johnson and Jacob Hemphill, flanked by another guitarist and a bongo player, McNamara played songs from his wonderful debut album, A Dollar Short & A Minute Late. The set could only be improved by a hammock to recline in, but enjoying the music stretched out on the grass gave my body a chance to recharge for the rest of the music to come that evening.
Given all the ways that Reggae Rise Up has expanded, which could be seen as a reflection of the burgeoning reggae community in general, perhaps it was fitting that The Expanders, Los Angeles’ “vintage reggae revivalists” (as perfectly described in their band bio) made an effort to remind listeners where the music came from, starting with the moving introduction delivered by old friend of the band, Rasta legend Johnny Black. Black spoke about some of the challenges faced by the anti-establishment early reggae performers and Rastafarian community at large, recounting how reggae was a form of spiritual warfare against the oppressive Jamaican government, a fight “not against flesh and blood but against spiritual wickedness everywhere.” The key to this, he said, was music, “because when you come to a show, you see people of all colors, race, having a good time, nobody fighting, just like flowers in a garden…”
From there, the band treated listeners to engaging renditions of some of the rich songs from their splendid Hustling Culture and self-titled albums. Plenty skanking a gwaan, one drop abound! Listening to these roots champions so adeptly recreate a golden era reggae sound brings me back decades to the days of my youth when I had first fallen in love with this profound music, music that not only moved me to shake my bones, but that uplifted my spirit by its lyrical messages of resistance, resilience, spirituality, unity and positivity. The Expanders riveting performance, along with the compelling words of frontman Devin Morrison, who delivered a brief sermon of his own paying homage to the origin of the music, resonated with me deeply.
Closing Saturday night, reggae rock superstars Slightly Stoopid brought down the house with their trailblazing high energy blend of roots, ragga, dub, jam, funk and punk. At times, the changing wind phased the sound in and out, adding a natural dub effect to the music. Although the cool night called for hoodies, Kyle, Miles and the gang had me sweating in only a t-shirt as I boogied with all the remaining strength that I could muster. The band wound down their performance with one of my all time favorite songs, “Collie Man,” which was the first song I had ever heard by the band over 15 years ago.
As Saturday’s performances came to a close, I headed back to my hotel exhausted but with a huge smile on my face.
I awoke Sunday excited for another day of fun with a dozen acts scheduled to perform. Once again the weather cooperated, withholding any sort of precipitation, although a strong wind persisted throughout the day, turning Tampa Bay into a rolling sequence of whitecaps.
While Sunday featured another ultra-talented lineup, once again presenting some of the most popular artists in the scene including HIRIE, Passafire, The Green and Dirty Heads, there were three performances that moved me the most.
Tatanka was the first of these. While reggae music is often loved for its chilled out beachy vibe, this four-piece outfit out of Denver approaches the music with a sonic wall of pure power. Keyboardist Andrew Maloney drives their electronic dub with a super heavy bass synth as he simultaneously complements the melody with piano riffs. The fervent pounding of drummer Mike Caine and nasty lead guitar of Nate Adams lend a more natural tone, while this dynamic fusion is cleverly juxtaposed by the understated vocals of Ian Gastl. The boys from Colorado had the rapidly growing audience at the “Vibe Stage” thrusting their fists into the wind.
The “Vibe Stage” was also home to one of my other favorite performances of Reggae Rise Up. I’ve heard Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad described by one of the other festival musicians as “the Grateful Dead of reggae” and the band’s penchant for venturing into extended instrumental jams during their distinct brand of roots reggae makes them worthy of this comparison. With dual front men, guitarist Dylan Savage and bassist James Searl, trading songs from their latest #1 Billboard reggae album Make It Better, the band treated a jam-packed crowd of passionate Panda devotees to spirited versions of the smooth psychedelic roots rocker “Signs,” the slower, cheerful, Gregory Isaacs-ish ballad “Really True” and the funky, upbeat “Walk Right Talk Right.” Throughout their not-long-enough 45-minute set, keyboardist Tony Gallicchio captained the ship with exuberance, an endless smile on his face as he clearly took delight in dazzling the fans with his magic fingers. For me, the most blissful moment of this amazing weekend came during the song “Steady,” when guitarist Dan Keller whipped the crowd into a frenzy by leading the sweet chorus of “Life’s been so good since I got to meet ya, oh my heart beats every time I see ya, under the sunlight sharing sensimilla, yeah” beneath a shower of golden, horizontal, magic-hour light and a steady saltwater breeze.
Finally, anyone who grew up listening to reggae music during the 1970s-1990s knows Birmingham, England’s legendary Steel Pulse. I applaud Reggae Rise Up for integrating a classic reggae act with the slew of modern reggae artists, especially a band so widely loved around the globe. With a catalog of international hits too long to list, these worldwide luminaries pleased festivalgoers with reggae anthem after reggae anthem as low-flying seaplanes spun overhead, buzzing the crowd like Thunderbirds doing a flyover at the Superbowl.
As previously mentioned, Reggae Rise Up had expanded considerably this year and while the overall experience was certainly a massive amount of fun, the festival could definitely improve upon some of its vendor logistics.
My greatest complaint from last year’s Reggae Rise Up festival was that the bathroom facilities for the crowd that had attended were vastly insufficient. This resulted in painfully long lines during the latter part of the day and evening. My indulgence in adult beverages throughout the better part of the festival resulted in me having to wait on lines for approximately 45 minutes at a time. When it was all said and done, I do believe I spent as much time waiting in line to relieve myself as I had dancing to reggae music. That was not what I had in mind.
This year, I am pleased to say that Reggae Rise Up greatly increased the amount of port-o-johns and concertgoers barely had to wait to use one. However, this may have been due to the fact that the lines for the stands serving alcoholic beverages were so ridiculously long that people surely consumed less. Personally, I couldn’t bring myself to wait in line for this amount of time. For this reason, I spent Saturday virtually alcohol-free, which, although it wasn’t necessarily by choice, in retrospect, was a good thing – less money spent, less calories consumed, less brain cells destroyed, less stress on my liver and a better recollection of the event.
To be fair, the lines on Sunday were not nearly as long. I chalk this up to the majority of attendees being locals who had to work the next day, or perhaps there were just less people there.
The other miss on the part of Reggae Rise Up was the implementation of a wristband system for payment for all food, beverages and merchandise. Once inside the gates, patrons had to wait in line to load funds (via cash or credit card) on their bracelet. While the scanning of wristbands may have saved marginal time so that vendors did not have to make change or swipe credit cards, the majority of the people I spoke with about the system felt like it was a bad idea. Or perhaps it was a good idea, but executed poorly.
One of the main complaints was that customers could not combine funds for a purchase, so that if someone had $23 remaining on their balance but the shirt they wanted cost $25, they had to go to another stand to add funds. (And likely wait in another line, albeit not nearly as long as the line for beer.) Adding to this frustration, event policy declared that all unused funds would automatically be returned to customers after the festival, minus a $5 processing fee. This did not sit well with people, especially when they had already been inconvenienced by this mandatory payment system.
In sum, while Reggae Rise Up had some operational shortcomings, they most certainly delivered an affordable, top shelf reggae festival experience, in a place where the American reggae scene is absolutely flourishing right now. I’ll be counting down the days to the next one.