“Ladies and gentleman, Toots and the Maytals!”
And with that declamatory introduction from, of all people, billionaire kook Donald Trump, millions of "Saturday Night Live" viewers were treated to Frederick "Toots" Hibbert leading his band through a spirited version of their reggae classic “Pressure Drop” on April 3, 2004. That TV appearance was one of many milestones in the 50-year history of a group that gave credence to the birth of reggae music, yet one that remains sorely underappreciated.
Formed as a vocal group in the 1960s, when reggae and ska where still in their infancy and drew equal influence from Jamaican folk and American rock, The Maytals were anchored by Hibbert's warm, full bari-tenor. Bolstered by an appearance in Perry Henzell's groundbreaking film "The Harder They Come" in the early ’70s, the Maytals joined Bob Marley and the Wailers in leading reggae through a worldwide renaissance and epoch, finding their niche with gritty, limber instrumentation and Hibbert's cheerful, Baptist-style call-and-response hooks. Tracks such as “Monkey Man,” “5446 Was My Number” and the parlance-inspiring “Do The Reggay” would mark defining moments in reggae’s golden age.
While his political and social commentary never rivaled the depth of Marley's, Hibbert can take credit for exploring the parallels between jazz, gospel, country and other forms of American music, and incorporating those genres' kinetic elements into reggae without forsaking his own identity. While other reggae artists adopted American accents for broader appeal, Toots' thick Jamaican patois rings proudly and uncompromised on every recording.
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Hibbert's own musical templates proved easily adaptable, as well. During the ’90s, when Marley posters became a prerequisite in college dorms, a spectrum of burgeoning musical styles — from dancehall raga to ska-punk — subtly claimed the Maytals as a key influence. The group emerged from hiatus and have been reigning supreme ever since.
State College will be treated to an all-acoustic Maytals set, akin to the one captured on “Unplugged On Strawberry Hill: Reggae Got Soul” released in July. The companion record and DVD showcases a pristine back drop in Kingston, Jamaica, Strawberry Hill resort, and the set list spans 1963's “Never Grow Old” to the 2004 comeback single “True Love Is Hard To Find.” The acoustic renderings have an autumnal, intimate vibe, yet are still delivered with a fervent, spontaneous conviction.
The current incarnation of the Maytals finds Hibbert accompanied by Carl Harvey and Dougie Bryan on guitars, Jackie Jackson on bass, drummer Paul Douglas, and Leba Thomas and Gwen Jackson on backing vocals.