TOOTS and THE MAYTALS
In Depth – Linear Notes
“Reggae Got Soul,” Toots Hibbert declares in one of his best-known songs, and when this giant of Jamaican music sings it, could anyone deny the statement’s truth? Toots’s voice naturally exudes the unassailable conviction that lies at the heart of all great soul music. With equal ease, he can summon an aching vulnerability, as well as, in his rapid-fire, staccato phrasing, an irresistible masculine force – often moving from one mood to the other in the course of a single song. But, whatever the emotion, when Toots sings it, he means it – and he convinces you to believe it, too. He gets the spirit and he makes you feel its fire.
It’s been that way since the early Sixties, when the teenage Frederick Hibbert left his country home in May Pen, Clarendon, traveled to Kingston, and formed his first group, the Vikings, who soon transformed into the Maytals. Since that time, Toots has absorbed, blended, influenced and helped shape a host of musical styles, from R&B to ska, from soul to rock & roll, from gospel to, of course, reggae, a term that his 1968 dance hit “Do the Reggay” helped establish.
True Love: Toots and the Maytals and Friends reflects that impressive range of musical significance. It also reflects the deep devotion that Toots, who is 57, inspires in the vast number of musicians, both young and old, who have been taken him to heart over the course of decades now. Supporting Toots ably here is an array of Jamaican all-stars – from the Maytals (guitarist Dougie Bryant, bassist Jackie Jackson, drummer Paul Douglas and organist “The Bulge”) to drummer Sly Dunbar and guitarists Hux Brown and Earl “Chinna” Smith. Deftly assembled by producer Richard Feldman, True Love is a stirring testament to the myriad ways in which one gifted man’s music can generate so many distinctive experiences of joy.
Listen, for example, to the very first track. In the abstract, it’s hard to imagine Willie Nelson and Toots singing together effectively. The only qualities they share are their innate, effortless uniqueness, their commitment to burning hard in the musical instant, and their absolute inability to sing the same line the same way twice. Nonetheless, their rendition of Willie’s “Still Is Still Moving to Me” is a complete delight. The Tex-Zen lyrics – “I can be moving, or I can be still/But still is still moving to me” — find a seductive setting in the song’s new-found reggae lilt. In Toots’ and Willie’s hands the tune becomes the tale of two road-hardened veterans telling how, while everything changes around them, their inner lives remain the endlessly nourishing source of their creativity and freedom.
And speaking of Zen riddlers, Trey Anastasio of Phish plays guitar on that track, as well as on the sprightly “Sweet and Dandy,” a song that listeners may know from the appearance of Toots’s original on the soundtrack to The Harder They Come, the film that brought reggae to the world outside Jamaica. Toots’s other contribution to that legendary album is “Pressure Drop,” a song that presaged hip-hop’s gripping chronicles of ghetto tension. Toots reprises that song here with Eric Clapton (whose cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” also helped popularize reggae worldwide in 1974). Clapton’s wah-wah playing – particularly his brilliantly articulated solo – serves as a kind of sympathetic chorus to Toots’ urgent warnings that “pressure gonna drop on you.”
Clapton also adds his wah-wah musings to the hypnotic “Take a Trip,” on which Toots duets with mystic-man, and founding member of the Wailers, Bunny Wailer. Guitarist Jeff Beck, for his part, finds all the unsettling angles in “54-46 (That’s My Number),” Toots’s chilling account of the ganja bust that sent him to prison. And, completing the triumvirate of English guitar icons paying tribute to Toots on True Love, Keith Richards brings a surprising sweetness, gentleness and spiritual yearning to “Careless Ethiopians.” Meanwhile, Warren Haynes, the supremely skilled inheritor of the guitar-slinger mantle, evokes a charged, erotic landscape for Toots and singer Rachel Yamagata to steam up on “Blame on Me.” On “True Love Is Hard to Find,” Toots and Bonnie Raitt make heartache sound like the most desirable condition imaginable, while Toots and alt-country star Ryan Adams find celebration even amid the hard economic struggles of “Time Tough.”
Several exultant generations of ska practitioners unite on True Love to demonstrate the style’s elasticity and resilience as an unfailing conveyor of fun. No Doubt pays off on a musical debt with plenty of interest on a blistering version of “Monkey Man,” and Terry Hall of the Specials, pioneering DJ U-Roy, and the Skatallites (performing with Toots for the first time in thirty years) light up the aptly titled “Never Grow Old.” The Roots, Bootsy Collins and Toots – “Toots, Roots and Boots,” as Collins announces in the song’s introduction – take everyone down to the rocking precincts of “Funky Kingston,” the musical capital that launched Toots and so many other Jamaican hit-makers. “Love Not Gonna Walk Out on Me” becomes a prayerful entreaty in this take by Toots and Ben Harper. Shaggy and Rahzel (the human beatbox of the Roots) give “Bam Bam” a gritty, contemporary makeover. Finally, two of Jamaica’s most eloquent singers, Marcia Griffiths and Ken Booth, join Toots to reveal, once again, that “Reggae Got Soul.”
As will become apparent the moment you hear it, True Love is a family affair – a family of musicians and fans that stretches across oceans and continents, across race, gender and age differences. Even at its rawest – maybe, especially at its rawest — Toots’s music surges with life. It binds together body and soul, the physical and the spiritual, the quotidian and the eternal. It lifts you up and leaves you there. When people describe music as a universal language, those are the qualities they’re talking about. Toots speaks that language with an intimacy, immediacy and bottomless energy that make his music a continual source of pleasure. He is a soul man in every sense of the word, truly one of the greats.