Chatting with Sierra Nevada World Music Festival honcho Warren Smith sidestage as the weekend was winding down Sunday evening, he agreed that putting on such an extensive roster of musical talent gets increasingly difficult as years fly by. “Seems to me that if one wants to showcase classic, quality reggae acts, as you've always done here, you're inevitably fishing in an ever-shrinking pond,” I said, as festival closer Luciano poured out a stirring gospel-inspired tribute to God, peace, reggae, and perseverance against persecution. Smith, looking understandably fatigued after a long weekend at the helm of the biggest annual event at the Fairgrounds, nodded. “Yes. But people sure seem to want us to keep trying!”
Judging from the full house present on Saturday and the almost-as-large crowds all weekend, he's right. But regarding some of the elder statesmen of reggae and other types of “world” music, the thought often arises that any given appearance might be their last in these parts. Touring is notoriously exhausting, and there's also the risk that they might be a shadow of the former self that made them famed and revered. Think of, say, Frank Sinatra in his final years, weakly croaking out his signature tunes while reading lyrics from a prompter and still getting the words wrong. There are too many other sad examples to list.
On the other hand, there's Jimmy Cliff. Headlining Saturday night after quite a few years absent from these shores, the almost-seventy reggae legend ignited a nonstop joyful frenzy onstage and throughout the fairgrounds. His tight band resplendent in red and sporting gold spangly pants and suspenders himself, Cliff's distinct and clear voice, athletic dance moves, and extended songlist dating back exactly fifty (!) years — his first hit, “Ms Jamaica,” won a song contest in 1962 — seemed to emerge from the spirit and body of somebody a third his age. I first caught a Cliff show in the 1970s and, though slicker since then, he seemed undiminished in any way. In fact, while braving the long line for coffee at Mosswood early the next morning, two crusty older locals, who did not look like rastafarians, were conversing: “You rent any parking spots to hippies this weekend?” “Nah — I just ripped 'em off without letting 'em park!” “Hah hah! But Jimmy Cliff sounded great last night, didn't he?”
There were some other such inspirational performances. Friday headlining band Third World has also been in action since the 1970s, and got a rave review for their high-powered set. Israel Vibration, now consisting of two of three original singers who first met in a Jamaican school for children afflicted with polio and have performed with leg braces and/or canes since, sounded plenty fine, even if not quite up to their peak era. Likewise for soulful singers Johnny Osbourne and Prince Alla and The Twinkle Brothers, all of whom date back as performers to the 1970s and offered sets that had true reggae aficionados raving. Reformed California band Dub Nation showcased a Motown oldies star, G.C. Cameron of American 1970s soul greats The Spinners, for a rousing blend. Alas, a much-awaited appearance by 1980s dancehall queen Sister Nancy was hampered by a voice that had seen (heard?) better times, but more contemporary singer Cherine Anderson had some people enraptured with her pure voice and flirty demeanor.
About the only-in Boonville appearance of Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Bovell Dub Band, he arrived smiling, seemed happy to make it despite/because of many logistical hassles — visas for his multinational band were a problem, for one thing — and presented an hour-long lesson in not only how tight and professional a band could sound, but a somewhat chronological tour through his poems-set-to-music addressing racism, class struggle, riots, and, well, modern history. Admittedly some of the messages could seem a bit incongruous in the otherwise-party-time atmosphere, but the crowd seem to eat it up — or at least the overall sound. In any event, natty in coat, red “power tie” and hat, LKJ and the band again demonstrated their unique vision and professionalism. Two young gents standing near me up front, both of them looking like committed reggae fans, seemed to be transfixed by the intricate horn and violin arrangements over deep basslines, and one said to the other “Man, is it just be being really high or does this band sound more amazing than anything I've ever heard?” I figured it was probably both.
The big “Valley Stage” was dominated by reggae acts throughout the weekend, while the more intimate “village stage” had more variety, with highlights including Locos por Juana, a Colombian-based high-powered dance group, and equally funky Afrolicious. Each day there also featured a very fun kids' parade fueled by Brazilian drum troupe Loco Bloco, and much more — but there's too much going on simultaneously to even sample it all and it's impossible to avoid missing some acts. As it was, I walked to and from stages many times, past many vendors of crafts and food and drink and, late in the evenings, the booming makeshift dance hall inside the big barn — too loud for my ears, but popular for many who don't get enough from all the live bands.
As for eating, my endless crave for Mexican food took me to all three venues I could locate in town — Mis Potrancos, the taco stand in front of the Mexican mercado, and, late on Sunday, the Redwood Drive-In's fresh off-menu offerings. All more than sufficed, and I was glad to learn one could still eat the fine Potrancos plates in the newly-reopened Saloon (and even if there were no longer the super local beers on tap therein, alas, eavesdropping yielded new information about Bigfoot, Jackalopes, plus other topics not suitable for a family publication).
The climate was perfect, I thought, with clouds blowing over and neither too hot nor cold (according to some overheard laments, the one downside to the lack of blazing heat was a relatively lower visible flesh quotient — although that's always a mixed blessing anyway, and one online fan enthused “Highlights of the weekend were definitely all the hot ladies with the furry animal hats on”). The medical folks working the festival reported no serious problems; likewise “the law,” although there were reports of one drunken brawl Friday night. From most any vantage, everything ran smoothly. No doubt it was too loud for some locals, especially if one lives where we stayed, east of the fairgrounds where the big stage's speakers were pointed (and where the prevailing winds blow). Some of the t-shirts concertgoers wore read “Boomville.” But I'd guess folks at, say, the market or taco stands or cafe, all of whom confirmed it was their busiest weekend of the year, were happy to tolerate the “leaked” sounds. Others, maybe less so; a crusty old-timer was heard to remark “If it's as loud as an F-18 from five feet away, it'd time to turn that sucker down.” The next morning, though, some low-flying choppers demonstrated what true noise really is.
On the festival's extensive website, attendees and others write about most anything they want, and admonish each other regarding reggae, rules, decorum, and, well, anything, and photos and videos and, well, anything. The content is lightly and patiently moderated by SNWMF staff, but all sorts of, er, “humanity at it's finest”-type material appears. Witness one yahoo who, pre-festival, promised/threatened to bring his own sound system to blast all night in the camping grounds, and when asked to not do so, replied “Im not hatin on the rules but I live my life by my own rules! Plus i have extra tickets in case I get kicked out!” Which elicited these quick rejoinders: “Use your head, the rules are so you don't ruin someone else's experience. But since you live your life by your own rules it sounds like you don't care much about others rules. So just stay home so i don't have to come burn your sound system.” And, “The Rules are made for people who don't see the need for any Rules. They are not put in place for respectful human beings that have a clue.” So it seems a bit of relatively mature self-policing ruled the day (or rather, night). But like elsewhere on the internet, much of the online “dialogue” is not serious in any sense of the word, or as one festival poster summed it, “so many clowns... so little time.”
My traditional Monday morning coffee constitutional up and down the length of town on both sides of 128 yielded only one large bag of litter, mostly booze bottles — which probably could have been there most any weekend. But there were also some handouts from “Jews for Jesus”; and in a new twist, Christian evangelists outside the fairgrounds were handing out such pamphlets, and one offered free Bibles. I was tempted to ask him what he thought of Rastafarianism but chickened out. It could have been an interesting discussion, as the true rastas are among the most fundamentalist of Biblical believers, albeit with some twists that can seem outright bizarre or blasphemous to other religious folks (in the cafe, a pot-oriented publication featured a review of a full-length book titled “Marijuana and The Bible”). Yet it could be argued their beliefs and practices are hardly stranger than those of, say, Mormons.
Introducing a song, head Twinkle Brother Norman Grant said “We sing about some things that some people don't want you to hear. This is why we have visa problems. But a lot of people don't have time to read or can't afford school, so in a song you can get a message that it might take years in college to learn.”
Hopefully, maybe, but modern life seems too complicated to summarize in a song, especially if one is addressing political economy, history, and the like. And it's too easy to just say “no war,” much as that still needs to be heard and heeded. But for some of the more profound truths, things that might even be termed “spiritual,” sometimes song is the best way to express things. Thus sometimes reggae is truly a form of gospel music. Considering the utter banality of much modern entertainment, some of the messages in the best reggae songs are worth spreading against the gathering darkness of our times, and an event such as SNWMF is one fun way to do that.