Whilst clear that ‘The Wailers’ wouldn’t include the late Bob Marley (or the late Peter Tosh for that matter), I’d given surprisingly little thought to who it was I would actually be seeing perform live. When I’d heard ‘The Wailers’ were coming to Bristol, my knee-jerk reaction was simply to get involved, and quickly if possible. Having grown up listening to ‘Legend’, it seemed essential for me to check out their show, so I hastily sorted my press passes and put the issue on the backburner once I’d been given the nod of approval.
Come the evening of the show though, it was pointed out to me by a friend that there were actually now two separate iterations of ‘The Wailers’ with slightly varying names, both including members of the band’s vintage touring years with Bob Marley (though neither line-up features Bunny Wailer, the only remaining founding member).
The more thought and conversation dwelled on the evening’s entertainers, the more doubt crept into play, raising the interesting topic of the point at which a band loses its identity, regardless of its name; ‘Guns N Roses’ being an ideal case study for debate.
Despite our growing scepticism, we pressed on.
Arriving on-stage as we entered the dark, two-tier hall of Bristol’s 02 Academy, ‘First Degree Burns’ had the privilege (and daunting task) of warming-up for a band whose name and heritage is near-ubiquitous on a worldwide level, like perhaps only a handful others can claim to be.
With a cool mix of instruments and styles, First Degree Burns are very much the modern offshoot of traditional reggae roots; their stem from a traditional sound is undoubtedly present, though it’s become cross-pollinated with influences of head-nod hip-hop and everything in-between, as well as the eclectic styling that comes in tow – flat-peak hats, bandanas, baggy t-shirts and a bit of swagger to boot. Reminiscent in part of ‘The King Blues’, they offered an interesting melting pot of styles delivered with their own, energetic twist; having heard of them previously a few times, I was glad to finally check them out and see that the chatter was justified.
With a buzz now building in anticipation of The Wailers arrival, the 02 Academy was growing busier and more animated by the minute, its available pockets of space growing ever thinner. Despite the increasing bustle, I noticed the venue didn’t open the balcony level to people, which I’ve seen them do many times before for less-accomplished acts. This decision intrigued me, though not for long as The Wailers soon joined the stage, generating a large cheer from the eager crowd.
Opening their set with ‘Natural Mystic’ and following up with ‘Soul Rebel’, the atmosphere was set for the evening; the band were packing back-to-back old-skool hits, solid performances and a rich, live sound!
Over the course of their set, I realised particular note must be made of the lead vocalist, Koolant, who was incredibly animated and passionate throughout his performance, forming a strong focal point. Whilst the rest of the band was unmistakably cool, clearly feeling their rhythm and sporting all manner of authentic Rastafari styles and items, Koolant raised their collective personality a step further with his enthusiastic actions and strong stage presence.
‘Trench Town Rock’ followed, as did a number of other stripped-down, dead-slow numbers, embraced with song near universally (to varying extents) by all present in the venue; it wasn’t uncommon to hear a near-equal volume heading towards the stage as that from it! Similarly engrossed, the drummer seemed enjoyably lost in the moment, his investment in proceedings manifested in a closed-eye, lively delivery somewhat reminiscent of Ray Charles in full flow.
Special elevation, intentional or otherwise, was the given to the ‘hit’ tracks of the set, the vast majority of which were featured on ‘Legend’. With the advent of ‘Is This Love’, the previously capable but overshadowed second vocalist leapt behind the wheel and drove the track in a switch-up that displayed another dynamic of the band, a new vocal style for the audience to enjoy and a brief respite for lead vocalist Koolant! That said, Koolant took it as an opportunity to dance even more animatedly than before and his energy levels remained high throughout the evening, leading proceedings from the front.
Next up, hope-brimmed favourite ‘Three Little Birds’ proved a further sing-a-long classic, lifting the room into high spirits before The Wailers wrapped their set to a rapturous and grateful applause. Departing the stage, a seemingly endless cheer and chanting resounded for a good couple of minutes whilst people stamped the floor maniacally to create an imposing rumble in what was the strongest, most passionate demand for an encore I’ve heard in a long time… dare I say it, ever!
Rejoining Bristol for the loudly demanded encore, Koolant and guitar player Audley ‘Chizzy’ Chisholm opened with the iconic introduction to ‘Redemption Song’ that’s ingrained into the memory of millions with its feature on the ‘Legend’ compilation. Played on an electric guitar tonight, the effects were kept to a minimum, allowing greater focus on the message and sentiment of the song, of which there are few that can compare.
Recognising the gravitas of the song being played, the crowd swelled into one and joined those on stage with a word-for-word, beat-for-beat rendition with the loudest volume I think I’ve heard one audience sustain at this venue, or perhaps any in Bristol before. This scene was a truly brilliant testament to the timeless significance and profound accessibility of the source material. At one point, Koolant stopped singing and instead ‘conducted’ the audience with proud, waving movements, such was the crowd’s investment and impassioned song.
Just when I thought things couldn’t be topped, ‘No Woman, No Cry’ shot a wave of recognition through the building that brought the place alive with a higher gear altogether; it was a special moment. One can only imagine how incredible it would’ve been with Bob Marley at the helm.
The involvement of two female backing singers and the extra texture they gave the band shined strongest during the later numbers, as did Chizzy’s guitar and his brilliant recreation of the ‘No Woman, No Cry’ solo, which rang true with note-for-note brilliance in it’s pure, understated and poignant form; he made his guitar sing.
Lifting proceedings from the intensity of ‘No Woman, No Cry’ for a buoyant finish, The Wailers melted ‘Bend Down Low’ smoothly into ‘Kaya’, before wrapping the night up with the rousing ‘Exodus’. The band left their stage to a final, triumphant applause that rang around the venue amongst a sea of smiling, relaxed faces, following two hours of vintage reggae music.
Though providing such a great show, it remains debatable as to what extent the band I saw play in Bristol was really ‘The Wailers’. It’s undoubted that without their synonymous talisman Bob Marley they’re lacking their most powerfully iconic draw and a huge driving-force of talent and soul within the band. However, the execution of those that played tonight was superb, proving an excellent vessel through which the music was played true to its esteemed roots.
Where before I’d been unsure what to expect, I’m pleased to report that The Wailers delivered a powerful show, fully loaded with optimistic and enjoyable vintage reggae that satisfied Bristol’s soul.