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(Above: “We and Dem” was one of several new cuts the Original Wailers performed in Kansas City.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

New material can be problematic for established acts. At a Kemper Arena concert several years ago, Elton John apologized for playing new songs and promised the he’d get to the hits as quickly as possible.
The Original Wailers took the opposite track Friday at the Voodoo Lounge, making several tracks from their upcoming album the centerpiece of the show. The gamble paid off.

Bob Marley casts a long shadow over all reggae acts, but the Original Wailers are especially stricken: Their two guitarists, J unior Marvin and Al Anderson, played with Marley on some of his greatest albums, including “Exodus” and “Uprising.”

The seven-piece band didn’t overlook those moments, but it was clear they want to be remembered as something more as well. After introducing themselves with a trio of Marley numbers, they dove into several songs from the as-yet unreleased album “Justice.”
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Even though the crowd couldn’t sing along, they didn’t seem to mind. Part of this had to do with band’s enthusiasm for the numbers. It was evident they were happy to be playing their new creations, and as a result the performances bounced a little bit higher. The other reason is that the songs maintained several of Marley’s hallmarks, like socially conscious, yet upbeat lyrics underlined by gospel organ lines and subtly textured guitar parts.

“Blackbird Fly” was dedicated to the late Joseph Hill from Culture and floated as effortlessly as its title implied. “Backslider” was a song about hypocrites in the vein of “Who the Cap Fit,” and “We and Dem” featured a nifty dub bass-and-drum breakdown.

After several new songs, Anderson declared the band would take a request. There were shouts for “I Shot the Sheriff” and “No Woman No Cry.” Both were good suggestions; neither was played. Instead, the band played another new number, “What’s Love Supposed To Do.” It might have been a cruel trick, but the poppy number kept everyone dancing happily.

Marvin and keyboard player Desi Hyson shared vocal duties. The pair were as much educators as entertainers, pausing between tracks to frame each song. The song “Justice” was prefaced by a quote from founding Wailer Peter Tosh, which drew a big cheer.

The band didn’t deliver a big Marley hit until nearly halfway through the two-hour show. The Voodoo Lounge wasn’t close to full, but just about everyone in the place ran onto the dance floor during the opening chords of “Three Little Birds.” A more obscure cut “Heathen,” also from the “Exodus” album, kept the floor crowded thanks to Anderson and Marvin’s extended solos. A master of feel, Anderson added touches of Latin, psychedelica, blues and even metal into the songs.

After introducing “Jammin’” the crowd didn’t need an incentive to stick around, but Marvin gave them one anyway, leading them through dance steps, hand claps and a call and response. Anderson added a weird, dissonant blues riff to the mix that didn’t seem to fit but somehow worked. As the band worked the groove, backing vocalist Erica Newell, spurred on by fans near the stage, unleashed her funkiest dance moves of the night.

Wailers2After a brief break, Anderson resumed the stage alone, playing a guitar solo that recalled Jimmy Page’s “White Summer/Black Mountainside.” Eventually joined by drummer Paapa Nyarkoh, the rest of the band fell in as he slid into the familiar intro to “Redemption Song.” The performance had a hymn-like solemnity until Marvin kicked it into doubletime, reworking the last verse into a ska number.

The night ended with a 15-minute romp through “Exodus” that wouldn’t quit. After jamming through all the verses, Nyarkoh took a drum solo that didn’t slow the dancing by a single step. Marvin eventually regained the stage, but the band wouldn’t stop, working the groove tighter and tighter as Anderson took a long solo. At this point there were two options: continue playing the number for the rest of the night, which no one on stage or in the crowd seemed to mind, or break it off immediately. Realizing the band had an upcoming gig and the audience may have weekend plans, Anderson chose the latter. If he hadn’t we might all still be dancing.

Setlist: Natty Dread, Rastaman Vibration, Forever Loving Jah, Solution, We Are the Children, Backslider, Justice, Pimper’s Paradise, We and Dem, Blackbird Fly, Three Little Birds, Heathen, What Love’s Supposed To Do, Jammin’. Encore: Al Anderson guitar solo > Redemption Song, Exodus/drum solo.

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