This might surprise you, but I’m not as crazy about the Montreal Jazz Festival as I used to be. Maybe it’s the massive crowds of tourists in for the weekend from god knows where, or the underwhelming sound at the main stage during a packed outdoor concert, but the annual event—now in its 40th year—isn’t usually circled on my calendar. The one thing that keeps me coming back every year, though, is the high quality of reggae artists on tap.
Yes, Jamaican music fans in the city are blessed with some true legends each summer. A few festivals back I had one of my best nights at Metropolis (as it was called back then) with a double shot of vintage island sounds as Toots and the Maytals and Burning Spear took the stage and tore the roof off. That festival also featured a free, outdoor tribute to rocksteady with a half-dozen or so veterans of the genre on stage for one massively epic performance.
Needless to say, Jazz Fest is great for reggae. And for this edition, the fine folks booked the iconic British roots band Steel Pulse. As I arrived outside MTelus, I knew I was in for another night of sweet, sweet reggae. The Rasta vibes were strong on Sainte-Catherine Street. Natty dreadlocks flew through the air, guys dressed in red, gold and green were everywhere. I heard someone shout “Rastafari” more than once as the smoke wafted down the street all the way to Foufounes Electriques.
Local MC Jah Cutta warmed up the crowd before the UK legends. Cutta, who calls himself “Canada’s King of Reggae,” was backed up by a DJ running familiar riddims and hitting the siren button on his mixer every few seconds while the MC hyped up the crowd. The brief set wasn’t horrible, but in the context of Jazz Fest, which usually champions live music, a full band would have been better than an MC and DJ combo.
By the time Steel Pulse came on stage, the crowd had swelled with drunk people spilling beer all over me and acting un-irie. Guys, this is a reggae show not a damn metal mosh pit! Some respect please! The UK legends opened with “Rally Round” and the crowd chanted “rally round the red, gold, black, and green!”
The tracks ranged from 70s and 80s classics like “Steppin’ Out,” “Ku Klux Klan,” “Wild Goose Chase,” and “Roller Skates,” to songs from their latest album Mass Manipulation. This was roots reggae at its most laid back and spiritually conscious, with a heavy dose of UK synth pop. It’s impossible not to smile and dance when you hear these guys, and the vibe on the dance floor, aside from the spilled beer on my pants, was beautiful.
I now realize the incredible longevity and commercial appeal of Steel Pulse. The band members are bloody good musicians who have been perfecting their sound for decades. They might be best known for their incredible vocal harmonies, with at least three members singing on every song. David Hinds and Selwyn Brown still hold it down as well as they did thirty years ago, and the talented band had the crowd skanking to every beat.
My only complaint is they didn’t play my favourite song “Handsworth Revolution,” a deep and heavy roots cut from their debut album of the same name. Everything else was absolutely flawless, and I can’t wait to see which reggae legends the Montreal Jazz Festival will book for the 41st anniversary.
Written by Rob Coles
Photography by Marc-Antoine Morin
*edited by Mike Milito