Reggae Artist Burning Spear Rocks the Roxy

Burning Spear is comfortable with the title of “legend” that is universally bestowed upon him.

“When people see a legend, they call it a legend. But to be a legend it’s a lot of hard work and patience. You can’t play for five or ten years and be a legend. It takes longer than that,” he says.

Burning Spear has had much longer to craft his following and hone his ample talent. He got his start in 1969 when he ran into Bob Marley carrying “a donkey and some buckets and a fork, and cutlass and plants.”

Marley directed him to Studio One, and the rest is history. Since then he has released an album every year or two, as well as dub remixes of his albums and more compilations than REM. So he’s not kidding about the hard work.

Burning Spear’s touring schedule is grueling to say the least. He and his Burning Band often play a different town every night for over a week at a stretch. But Spear is unfazed.

“This is what I do,” he says. “This is the way I choose to lay it out. I been doing it for a long time. It’s my duty to make it nice. I will be there playing my best.” Despite his revolutionary moniker, Spear gives an impression of peace and calm, as well as dignity.

At the Roxy Theatre downtown, Spear seems almost tentative in his singing at times, but the effect is deceptive. Old-school reggae highlights a singer’s phrasing and timing like old jazz standards, and Spear is a master of the technique.

His voice weaves through the rock-steady beat of his songs like a subtle horn line, shifting dynamics and tempo to suit the pitch-perfect delivery. Unexpectedly, Spear drops his unerring focus on the music and explodes “Talk to me people!” to which the audience readily responds.

Burning Spear is also an able percussionist and his understated contributions on the congas and woodblocks emphasized the subtlety of his music. His solos were carefully spaced, never devolving into manic virtuosity but underlining Spear’s flair for nuance and rhythm.

The Burning Band, most of whom look young enough to be Spear’s children or even grandchildren, provide able accompaniment for Spear’s rich voice.

With the exception of one track from his new album Freeman (the sunny, horn-driven “We Feel It”) most of the concert is a mix of older tracks. Among these is the memorable “Columbus,” which declares “Christopher Columbus is a dam-blasted liar / He never discover Jamaica.”

Had it not been for the recent closure of the Cambridge House of Blues, the show would almost certainly have been held there. Burning Spear has played the venue before, and several stops on his current tour were at other House of Blues locations. Nonetheless, the audience included a large number of college-looking kids, as well as a high proportion of dreadlocked fans.

Spear recently released his first album of new material, Freeman, since 1999’s Grammy-winning Calling Rastafari. The album does not try to update Spear’s sound with gimmicks; there are no Wyclef collaborations to distract from Spear’s solid songwriting and mellow voice.

In fact, despite glancing references to Spear’s age, lyrically the album sounds peculiarly young. When Spear sings, “I want to be loved for who I am / Not loved for what I have,” he sounds like a young star experiencing his first disorienting taste of fame.

Freeman is also Spear’s first album of new material on his own label, Burning Music Productions.

“Before, I used to say that all the songs on my albums were my favorite,” he says. “Now I say that Freeman is my favorite album.”

The album is certainly upbeat, with Spear taking rock music to task for its gloominess and openly embracing the name “Dready” for Rastafarians. “Rise Up” features the obligatory tribute to Marcus Garvey, a trademark of Spear’s work.

With his devotion to roots reggae, Spear seems almost uninterested in recent music—particularly when it comes to the recent revival of dancehall, a form of reggae.

“Dancehall been around for a long time. In my time, dancehall was there. But it’s an on and off thing. It fades out and comes again. If it was you [selling dancehall records] for six months, it will not be you for the next six months. Like fashion.”

He is much more generous about reggae music.

“Every musician tries to blend in some reggae,” he says. “It’s the only music that brings all people together, different races, different religions.”

Dub music, a Jamaican music form from the 1960s, also “will never go away. It’s always there for to find.”

“There are future artists,” he adds. “I might not know them but they will come and step into the light soon.”

—Staff writer Andrew R. Iliff can be reached at iliff@fas.harvard.edu.