NEW YORK, NY—I heard a funny anecdote once about Toots Hibbert. An associate of mine was once lucky enough to spend some time offstage with the reggae legend, and told me that if you see the way the man moves, you can tell he’s getting old. He hobbles, he limps a bit; those old bones are wearing down after years of wowing audiences from Kingston to Croatia. But when he took the stage on Wednesday night at B.B. King’s Blues Club, you’d never know that this man was a day older than twenty-five. Toots jumped, he danced, he grooved, and sang his soul out to a packed house, where many of the concert-goers were clearly too young to have even been born when Toots and the Maytals sprang onto America’s music radar in the 1970’s.
Toots and the Maytals came to reggae prominence in the United States in the 1970’s riding the coattails of the classic film, The Harder They Come, which many credit as being the USA’s first major introduction to reggae music. However, Toots and the Maytals countered success by producing a string of now legendary reggae albums with the Maytals’s signature gospel-inspired vocal harmonies gluing themselves into the minds of the musical generations to come – reggae or not.
Unlike a fair amount of legendary reggae acts whose concerts have sunken into well-rehearsed nostalgia trips, Toots brought it to the stage with all of his heart and soul. Leading the latest version of the Maytals through some of the band’s biggest hits like “Pressure Drop” and “Funky Kingston,” Toots sang and howled like red hot fire. While the man’s face may have aged a bit, his voice remains as passionate and uncompromising as ever, reaching out and striking even the most blasé concertgoers hanging out in the back of the bar square in the face. Backed by the rumbling drum and bass assault of one of reggae music’s tightest rhythm sections, Toots’s pained vocals smoothly collided with those of his two female back-up vocalists, serving a touch of silk to Toots’s hardened howl.
Although the main course of the night was reggae classics including “Do the Reggay,” which several sources claim was responsible for coining the name of the genre, Toots and the Maytals proved their relevancy to modern music by playing a couple of tracks from their more recently released album, Flip and Twist. On new tracks that undoubtedly few in the audience knew quite as well as the timeless “Country Road” and “54-46,” Toots’s performance exerted insurmountable energy, reminding everyone even though the band’s big hits are behind them, they are not by any means ready to just be written off into the annals of music history. Toots and the Maytals remain a hallmark live act in reggae, remaining true to the classic dancehall dedication that brought them out of Kingston and into the ears of the entire world.