The following is an excerpt from If You Like Bob Marley… by Dave Thompson.
As the album that spawned the original hit version of “No Woman, No Cry,” the song that remains Bob Marley’s best-loved (and most-covered) number, the Wailers’ 1975 Live album ignited a trend for in-concert recordings that persisted for much of the next decade, at least in western markets. More recently, the regular release of archived live recordings from the same period has done much to distill the importance of such documents—even the original “No Woman, No Cry” has been supplanted on certain Marley compilations by other live recordings.
Nevertheless, an hour or so spent in the company of a great live album is almost . . . almost . . . as good as being there; or, at least, knowing somebody who was. And here are ten of the very greatest.
Trojan Reggae Party—various artists (1971)
Recorded live in London in 1971, and the soundtrack to many a period party, Trojan Reggae Party preserves punchy performances from the Cimarons, Bruce Ruffin, Nicky Thomas, the Pioneers, Dandy Livingstone, Greyhound, and more. (All had scored U.K. hits recently, with Thomas’s impassioned “Love of the Common People” and Ruffin’s loopy “Mad About You” especially outstanding.) Hard to find, and expensive when it does turn up, but a seriously magnificent album.
Live—Burning Spear (1977)
Recorded on Burning Spear’s sensational visit to London in 1977, where he was accompanied by local reggae band Aswad, Live is an electrifying set that could easily be his best album ever.
Not an album per se, Live was a twelve-inch EP capturing highlights of the DJ’s summer 1976 visit to the U.K. Recorded at the Lyceum Ballroom, with Sly and Robbie in thunderous attendance, it whets the appetite for more. Which, sadly, has still to be delivered.
Prisoner in the Street—Third World (1980)
Third World’s studio output often painted them as the soft and sweeter side of roots reggae. This set tears expectations to shreds, delivering wildfire eruptions through “96 in the Shade,” “African Woman,” and the title track, keeping it up so long that the vinyl has practically melted by the time you hit the end.
Live at the Music Machine—Dillinger (1981)
Recorded in London before a deliriously packed house, it is no surprise to find this album has since been repackaged as The Best of Live. Because that is what it is, as Dillinger travels through all his best-known numbers: “Natty Don’t Need Glasses,” “Roots Natty Congo,” “CB 200,” “Judgement Time,” and, of course, “Cocaine in My Brain,” a thumping celebration of white powder and its power, together with a lesson in literacy that the crowd that night knew by heart.
Live at Reggae Sunsplash—Big Youth (1983)
He opens with “I Pray Thee”/“Satta Massagana”; closes with “Hit the Road Jack”; and, in between, delivers a seething greatest-hits collection that is topped by what might be a career-best “Green Bay Killers.”
Live at the Controls at Jack Ruby Sound Ocho Rios J.A. —Brigadier Jerry (1983)
A blistering dancehall celebration, with the Brigadier joined by fellow stars Sammy Dread, Michael Prophet, and, sounding great in the midst of things, the veteran Dennis Brown.
Junjo Presents Two Big Sounds—various artists (1983)
The album that introduced the world to Beenie Man, a wild DJ collection that also features Dillinger, Michael Irie, Fathead, and Ringo, recorded live at 82 Chisholm Avenue, Kingston, in early 1983.
Prince Jammy and the Striker Lee Posse Presents Music Maker Live at the Halfway Tree Jamaica —various artists (1984)
Horace Andy, Chaka Demus, Don Carlos, Super Liki, and many more gather for a night of high-energy dancehall mania. Raw and unproduced to some ears, this album redefines excitement.
Live in Tokyo—Augustus Pablo (1991)
Pablo’s reluctance to tour is good reason why there are no live recordings from his earlier period; but this set, dating from his first-ever visit to Japan in 1991, catches him making up for lost time.
Vibes Alive—Israel Vibration (1992)
Recorded in California the previous year, the long-running saga of Israel Vibration hits the road with the ever-seething Roots Radics.
Live On—Wailing Souls (1994)
Another album that you wish could have been recorded a decade-and-a-half before, but it wasn’t, so you live with it. And that really isn’t that great a hardship.
Party in Session Live—Michael Rose (1997)
Recorded at various halts on former Black Uhuru frontman’s Michael Rose’s 1997 U.S. tour, what could have been a wearying set of revivals instead morphs into a magical celebration of past and present.
Cultural Livity—Live 1998—Culture (1998)
Spanning the years with a crowd-pleasing set, Cultural Livity scarcely remedies the absence of a 1970s concert recording from this most powerful of live bands, but it’s still hot. Especially if you can ignore the keyboards.
Live at Reggae Sunsplash 1994—Garnett Silk (1999)
Garnett Silk was poised to become the biggest reggae star of his era when he was killed in a house fire in December 1994. Recorded at Sunsplash earlier that same year, this is thus the sound of Silk at his peak, neither beholden to the familiar versions of his greatest hits, nor particularly interested in them. If you own just one Silk album, make sure it is this one.
Live—Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers (2000)
A handful of his father’s songs could, but do not, overshadow Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers’ own material on an album that captures all the joy and excitement of a period Melody Makers gig.
Words of Truth—Sizzla (2000)
Two CDs for the price of one: a new studio collection and a savage Sizzla live set that is alone worth the price of admission.
The king of the 1990s roots-consciousness revival, Luciano is caught live at the end of the decade he dominated with a set that shows you how he accomplished such.
Live in Paris—Yami Bolo (2000)
Yami Bolo’s version of “Curly Locks,” which turns up at the end, is what clinches this as a fabulous album—but the entire performance is spot on.
Live in San Francisco—Capleton (2007)
Too many live albums are now delivered as DVDs these days, and the pros and cons of that approach are for you to decide. This stunning Capleton set, however, repeats the concert on an audio disc, and it’s definitely worth diving into.
If You Like Bob Marley… is the unique and utterly compulsive story of the King of Reggae, told not through the life and times of Marley himself, but through the music and magic of the musicians who grew up around and under the influence of Bob Marley and his band, the Wailers.