Toots and the Maytals Unplug at Belly Up

by Andrew Travers, Time Out Staff Writer
When you’ve been playing music and performing for nearly 50 years, there aren’t a whole lot of “firsts” left.

So there’s not a whole lot of territory Toots Hibbert, frontman for the reggae pioneers Toots and the Maytals, hasn’t covered.

But these days Hibbert is indeed on his first-ever acoustic tour, leaving behind the chop of electric guitar and skanky beat of electric bass that he has used to define Jamaican music over the decades.

Toots and the Maytals bring their stripped-down tour to Belly Up on Friday, Nov. 9, starting a string of Colorado gigs in Denver, Beaver Creek and Durango.

“Colorado is my town,” Hibbert boasted. “And you’ve never seen me acoustic yet. It’s my first time doing an acoustic tour. So I know you’re going to be happy.”

When he spoke to Time Out in late October, he was holed up in a Virginia hotel, waiting out Superstorm Sandy, which canceled a stretch of acoustic shows on the Eastern Seaboard. A native of rural May Pen, Jamaica, Hibbert is no stranger to hurricanes.

“It just left,” he said the morning after the storm. “It reminds me of Jamaica.”

Hibbert has been a musician full-time since his teen years, when he moved to Kingston and formed a trio called the Vikings with Raleigh Gordon and Jerry McCarthy. They sang gospel-tinged songs that laid the foundation of ska and reggae, and became hits in the country. In the mid-1960s they evolved into the Maytals and became the biggest name in ska.

Their 1967 song, “Do the Reggay,” is credited with coining the term “reggae,” a sound they helped defined through songs like “54-46” and “Monkey Man.”

And though the reggae legend is laid back, and legendarily friendly, Hibbert is also conscious of his legacy — one he’s committed to solidifying — as the progenitor of reggae.

“It’s really fun to meet people and see that they enjoy themselves,” he said of his commitment to touring in recent years, “and to make sure they know that I’m the one who coined the word ‘reggae.’ I’m the one that invented reggae.”

The Maytals grew an audience in Jamaica and Britain before their first U.S. release, which came on the soundtrack for “The Harder They Come,” Jimmy Cliff’s classic 1972 reggae action movie, including the career-launching classic “Pressure Drop.” By then the group was going by Toots and the Maytals, and started releasing records of their  own in the U.S. in 1975.

That year’s album, “Funky Kingston,” included Toots’ iconic interpretation of Aspenite John Denver’s “Country Roads,” where he substituted the lyrics’ “West Virginia” with “West Jamaica.” They opened, improbably, for The Who on tour that year, but soon saw Bob Marley and Peter Tosh outshining them in popularity in the U.S.

They split up in the early ‘80s, but Toots has reformed the band with various members, over the last 20 years — and found a renaissance of acclaim and popularity — due largely to his enthralling, impassioned performances.

The band’s anthem “54-46,” about his time in a Jamaican prison in 1966 for marijuana possession, is likely to take on some deeper meaning at the Aspen show, following the statewide Nov. 6 vote to legalize the drug in Colorado.

Over the last five decades, Toots’ sound has been Jamaica’s sound. From ska to rock-steady to reggae, he and the Maytals have been at the forefront of the island nation’s musical evolution. In their homeland, the band has more than 30 No. 1 hits. In October, Hibbert was awarded the Order of Jamaica — the Jamaican equivalent to knighthood.

Here in the U.S., though, newer fans are most likely to have discovered Toots through covers of his songs by a steady and diverse stream of popular artists.

In the late ‘70s, as ska meshed with American and British punk, bands like The Specials and The Clash covered Toots and the Maytals songs. Again, in the ‘90s, Toots & the Maytals saw a renaissance in the U.S. as their songs were covered by the likes of Sublime, leading a new generation to their music and shows.

“That made me kind of sure that I must keep on writing good songs, so that people can sing them over and over,” he said.

The most recent surge of pop covers were collected on 2005’s Grammy-winning “True Love,” an album of the band’s classics where Hibbert re-recorded with the likes of The Roots, No Doubt, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards.

The band’s latest album, “Unplugged on Strawberry Hill,” features stripped-down acoustic versions of 12 Toots songs, recorded live in Jamaica.

He said he’s tackled playing acoustic, after years of electrified reggae, simply because he had never tried it before.

The acoustic sound is no less energetic, and maybe more soulful, than the electric one people are used to hearing from Toots and the Maytals. The arrangements put Hibbert’s voice, and his characteristic mix of scatting and soul deliveries, at center stage with a simple string guitar and percussion backing.

His music spans genres. The Toots brand of reggae is informed by gospel, blues, country, and — he would say, most importantly — by a positive message.

“The music changes but I don’t change,” he declared. “I stay positive.”

The uplifting, inspiring power of music, he said, has been lost on many younger artists who pour hate and ego into their lyrics.

“The music they’re hearing from the younger generation is maybe not so qualified. It’s more negative stuff,” he offered. “So we try to keep it positive and help the younger generation to learn that R&B or hip-hop or soul, you can make it positive.”

The ongoing 20-city U.S. tour puts Toots on stage with his son Hopeton on bass, Paul Douglas on percussion, and backing vocals by Chantelle Ernandez and Elenore Walters. “Special guest” Anders Osborne, the Louisiana roots musician and guitar maven, who brought down the house at  Carbondale’s PAC3 last year, has been opening up and regularly sitting in with Hibbert as well.

At 66, Hibbert says he won’t be slowing down any time soon.

“I don’t have any plans to retire yet, its too early to make plans like that,” he laughed. “We just keep going and making music for the next generation and for everyone.”

His new foray into acoustic instrumentation seems like an indication that he’s still evolving and growing as an artist and performer. Not content to recreate the same experience over and over for his fans, he’s keeping his sound fresh while still playing the songs everybody comes out to hear from him.

“Every time I play I make it new,” he said. “We’re going to give them a good acoustic show and I’m sure they’re going to enjoy it. They’ve never seen me this way before.”

Toots and the Maytals
with Special Guest Anders Osborne

Friday, Nov. 9
9:00 p.m.
Belly Up Aspen
$35/general admission
$45/ reserved and dance floor seating