Monday, June 24, 2013

The Wailers: Burnin'

On the spine of the deluxe editions of the first two Island records of this staggering reggae band, it reads, "Bob Marley and the Wailers," while on the discs and cover art it, as it should, sports the name "The Wailers."  This was undoubtedly due to some contractual stipulation that existed after the great original line-up broke up shortly after this 1973 album was released. 

Of course, it was certain that, once The Wailers began to achieve success outside Jamaica with their Catch a Fire and, especially, Burnin' albums, the band was going to be driven by Bob Marley and this led Bunny Wailer, first, and then Peter Tosh to pursue their own solo careers.  While these latter two had moments of great success in the 1970s, the Marley phenomenon skyrocketed and led to some of the greatest music made anywhere through his untimely death from cancer in 1981.

And, in listening to this record, it is also obvious that the best tracks are from Marley, even though there are some fine contributions by Wailer and Tosh, and that three genuine classics come from his work (one of them, however, was co-written by Tosh.)  Essential, also, to the success of this great band was the rhythm section of bassist Aston "Family Man" Barrett and his brother Carlton on drums and the keyboardist Earl "Wire" Lindo.

The first track is one of those timeless works, the commanding "Get Up, Stand Up," which was a collaboration between Marley and Tosh.  This is followed by Wailer's "Hallelujah Time," which starts off in a middling fashion, but becomes a stronger track later. 

Then comes the most famous Wailers tune of all, though it took a cover by Eric Clapton (which, while a good rendering, cannot come close to the brilliance of the original--but this is usually so and Clapton deserves credit for his excellent taste and in helping to spread the word about the originators!) to get it international attention.  "I Shot the Sheriff" is a tour-de-force and testament to Marley's genius.

Hardly less impressive to this listener, though, is the sublime "Burnin' and Lootin'" which established Marley as a political tunesmith without peer in the Jamaican reggae scene.  And, what could perhaps be termed "minor classics" followed with the excellent Marley pieces, "Put It On" and "Small Axe."

Then, it was time for Wailer's strongest contribution, the gospel-tinged and soulful "Pass It On," which also highlights the phenomenal harmonies that made the Wailers the best of the best in their genre.  Truthfully, the harmonizing is strong throughout the record, but it seems to have peaked on this excellent tune.

Marley's "Duppy Conqueror" is another of those "minor classics" with a catchy chorus that is among the most memorable of the many that the master composed over his long career and it is followed by Tosh's strong chorus and organ-drenched opening in the very strong "One Foundation."  The closer, the traditional "Rasta Man Chant" as arranged by Marley, ends the album with that pointed religious vibe inherent in Rastafarianism, including the nyabinghi drumming part of that system's rituals.

The deluxe edition features some additional tracks by Wailer and Tosh that featured strongly in their subsequent solo work, including Wailer's excellent "Reincarnated Souls," which was a centerpiece of his awesome Blackheart Man album; Tosh's "No Sympathy," another strong track, excepting perhaps some harsh synthesizer accents, which was on the fantastic Legalize It record; and Wailer's "The Oppressed Song," another stunning work with an acoustic guitar opening that may be one of his best compositions and which also was a standout on Blackheart Man.  The extras are rounded out with an alternate take and edited single version of "Get Up, Stand Up."  That's an amazing roster of extras, for sure!

As if that weren't enough, the second disc includes a live performance at Leeds, England in late November 1973, as part of a short American and British jaunt.  Wailer had departed the band after making the Burnin' record in April and during the tour, called the Catch A Fire Tour, that followed.  So, for the Leeds Polytechnic gig, Marley and Tosh shared lead vocal duties, with Tosh abandoning the bass range from the trio's work and focusing on the higher notes in harmonizing with Marley's lead vocals.  Tosh, however, does some solo guitar work that was not heard on the studio recordings.

The performance features classics from the two Island recordings and is a nice extra to have after hearing both Catch A Fire and Burnin' in their studio incarnations.  It's a shame that Bunny Wailer didn't remain with the band through the 1973 tours, but this is still a strong performance with the longer playing times reflecting the band's ability to stretch out, play with great soul, tightness, and unity, and not fall prey to too much noodling, wandering and tangential playing, even though "Lively Up Yourself" does run almost 14 minutes!

So, while it was inevitable that Bob Marley's ascendency would lead to the departures of Wailer and Tosh after nearly a decade together, Burnin' shows just how awesome this band was when clicking on all cylinders and, for the most part, it was on this record.  Tosh and Wailer went on to some success in their solo careers, but the retooled Bob Marley and The Wailers became an international phenomenon under the charismatic leadership and vocalizing and strong songwriting of its undisputed leader.

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