By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
If Robbie Shakespeare’s job as a musician fizzles, he could probably make a living bringing down buildings. Alongside rhythm partner Sly Dunbar, Shakespeare’s bass rattled the foundations of the Folly Theater for nearly two hours Saturday night.
Backed by the four-piece Taxi Gang, Sly and Robbie delivered their signature reggae sound, which has appeared on literally tens of thousands of records, encompassing everyone from Bob Dylan to Peter Tosh.
The night started with an instrumental that exceeded 20 minutes in which the musicians passed solos like a jazz combo. As the trombone and saxophone bridged the gap between Afro-beat and ska, the keyboards and guitar subliminally sparkled underneath. When the guitarist popped to the forefront he delivered solos that recalled Carlos Santana, displayed Eddie Van Halen’s two-finger tapping and went Jacques Cousteau on his wah peddle for a solo that sounded like it was played underwater.
Though they politely shared the spotlight, Sly and Robbie were never far from the forefront. Robbie’s bass was so loud it drowned out most of the vocals and probably registered on the Richter scale. Sly’s drums sat neatly on top, crisp, precise and articulate. Their playing wasn’t flashy, but their grooves spoke volumes.
The Folly was half-full at best, but the band worked the room like it was packed. Putting down his horn, the trombone player paced the stage leading the crowd in call and response. He delivered a great cover of LeRoy Smart’s “Ballistic Affair,” which featured Sly and Robbie on the original 1976 recording, and drew the biggest applause of the night with a reading of Bob Marley’s “Rastaman Chant.” The sextet slowed that number ever so slightly, accentuating the song’s gospel elements.
Though their playing was engaging, the music did get a little samey after about an hour. The echo-laden drums and behind-the-beat accompaniment typical of deep dub only hold so much room for exploration. Fortunately, a surprise appearance from singer Peter Gayle rescued the set.
Acting as if there were a secret ordinance against standing still, Gayle was constantly kicking his feet along with the beat, twirling his long dreadlocks or suggestively swinging his hips. His G-rated cover of Webbie’s “I Miss You” excited the crowd and the energy stayed high after he was gone.
The concert was part of the “Cyprus Avenue Live at the Folly” series, and came just one night after the ensemble’s performance at the Wakarusa Music Festival in its new home at Ozark, Ark.
The band opened their encore set with a cover of Tex Ritter’s Oscar winning ““High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me).” Robbie said this was their first time performing the number and the arrangement was little more than his vocals and Sly pounding out the Bo Diddley beat on his bass drum. They closed with “Welcome to Jamrock,” which after several minutes somehow morphed into a gentle jazz saxophone solo. After saying good night, half the ensemble left the stage. Seemingly oblivious, the saxophone and keyboard players and guitarist played on, lost in the rhythm.