I don’t listen to a ton of reggae, but when I do, my favorite act is Toots and the Maytals. I’ll admit I haven’t delved too deeply into his catalog, but I quite like a lot of the songs that are always on his “best of” collections. So I was excited to see him peform, even if he’s past his prime.
It was cool to see Toots on stage, and it was cool to hear songs like “Time Tough,” “Monkey Man,” “Pressure Drop” and “54-46 That’s My Number” played live. And it was cool to be in a hall full of people who like this stuff.
But the show wasn’t as satisfying as it could’ve been because I could barely hear Toots’ vocals. I don’t know if it was because of the Newport’s notoriously muddy sound mix or because his voice was thin that night, but it often seemed like I could hear the vocals in my head more than in my ears. If you’ve seen him in recent years, I’d be curious to hear whether his vocals were strong.
Not only did I fly across the Atlantic to see Lemon Jelly, I did it twice. The first time was in 2003, when Mrs. Stubs and Stories and I planned a UK trip in part around seeing Lemon Jelly. Unfortunately, the band canceled that tour after we’d booked our trip, so we didn’t get to see them then.
The second time was the charm, though. This show, in Manchester, was a rollicking good time. If you know anything about Lemon Jelly, you know that they have ways of making things special, whether it’s their album artwork, gatefold covers, colored vinyl pressings and more. Just look at the ticket stub — a bit nicer than your average slab of cardboard (though not as clever as when the band did shows where the tickets consisted of special T-shirts that concertgoers wore to get inside).
For this show, the band had a chalkboard set up near the entrance where attendees could scrawl messages that were displayed on a big screen inside the theater. There also was a stand selling old vinyl records that Lemon Jelly’s Fred Deakin pulled from his personal collection of thrift-store finds. Before the concert, the band held a brief quiz game, with audience members getting prizes for shouting out correct answers.
Then there was the concert itself. Playing before an elaborate light show that cost enough to render the tour unprofitable, the Jellies served up many favorites from their catalog. Some tunes were reworked with new instrumentation played live. Others incorporated new samples, notably the mashup of “Ramblin’ Man” with a Giorgio Moroder number.
After the concert, Fred Deakin played a hastily arranged DJ set at a student union nearby. His eclectic selection was great fun to hear.
There aren’t many times I feel sorry for a performer, but this night was one of them. The show originally was booked for the Newport Music Hall, which has a capacity of about 1,800 and sits adjacent to the Ohio State University campus. Because of poor ticket sales, it was moved to The Basement, a tiny venue a few miles away that has a slogan of “You’ve gotta start somewhere.”
Turns out the show could’ve been moved to the promoter’s living room, as it seemed like only about 20 people showed up. But instead of cancelling the show or going through the motions for a little while and high-tailing it, Z-Trip made the most of it. He played a full show and did his best to entertain the few people there.
The show could’ve been a good one. The Black Sheep were the openers, and they put on a nice old-school set. And Z-Trip had some fun elements planned, including a bit where someone from the audience would play Pac-Man and Z-Trip would scratch and drop beats to accompany the Pac-Man music. Unfortunately, he picked someone who apparently had never played Pac-Man, or perhaps any video game, before, as she had several tries but could barely move the character and was killed by Blinky or Clyde in a matter of seconds each time.