After a number of years away from the stage, Shaun Ponsonby catches the reggae giants’ return to Liverpool at the Olympia.
Toots & The Maytals haven’t been on a Liverpool stage for a number of years.
Regular visitors to the city, they temporarily quit touring after an incident in America where Toots was struck by a bottle thrown from an audience member and received a concussion. As a result, he grappled with stage fright and for a while it looked like one of the defining artists from reggae’s initial boom was going to hang up his microphone for good.
Thankfully, over the last year or so he has started performing regularly again.
The show hasn’t sold out, but it has sold well enough. There is enough room to move around comfortably, which is actually pretty appropriate for reggae.
They begin with a short instrumental jam, which feels like something of a soundcheck, before guitarist Carl Harvey stepped forward to introduce “The man who gave us the word reggae” and they immediately struck up Pressure Drop.
The band are exemplary. A number of Santana-sounding solos from Harvey seemed to surprise some members of the audience, and a few solo spots from the backing vocalists received some of the biggest cheers of the night.
What makes The Maytals such a special experience on stage is that the majority of the band are the same musicians who played the material on record 50 years ago. Between them, they still have that sound, that groove, that feel which was so captivating. It doesn’t sound exactly like the record, but there is a familiarity to it that is the foundation of every sound they make on stage.
Toots himself has retained his unique vocals. He is as much a soul singer as he is a reggae singer. When he plays with the crowd, it is clear that his improvisation skills are as great as ever, and he can make you believe saying “Yeah” has some kind of profound meaning. He takes it right back to church.
There have been some small changes from the last time they came around though. For starters, Toots is playing far more guitar these days, and perhaps understandably, his physical interactions with the crowd seemed to have diminished somewhat.
The first half of the show was pretty laid back, but the band caught fire on Funky Kingston. Toots started strumming the riff on his guitar, with the crowd screaming the “Hey, hey, heys” as the band slowly started picking up the song.
It seemed to signal the start of the big hitters. Bam Bam, Reggae Got Soul and Take Me Home Country Roads came one after the other before the main set ended with Monkey Man, which might be the most fun reggae song ever written.
The final encore of 54-46 Was My Number had the whole crowd losing their minds as soon as Toots screamed the immortal opening cry of “Stick it up, mister!” and ended with a lengthy vamp where songs no longer existed, and all that mattered was the groove.
The idea that anybody would leave the room without a smile on their face was unfathomable.
Openers Kioko seemed to enter the stage a bit early, meaning their set also ended a bit earlier than scheduled, which in turn led to a longer gap between bands. Thank God for the Positive Vibration DJ set, which made the lengthy wait feel like a breeze.
As a result, we came in after their set had already started, but they warmed us up perfectly. In particular, the energy coming from their horn players was palpable around the room, constantly revving the crowd. It will be interesting to see if that energy can be translated to record, but they are definitely a live act worth seeing.
Pictures by Brian Sayle