A reggae reverie

You’re reading this because you already know Lee “Scratch” Perry the legend — inventor of dub and the man who can say “I gave reggae to Bob Marley” — but you’re wondering, now that he’s 80 years old, what is one of his live sets like?

It starts off with the musicians taking the stage in conical straw “coolie” hats, then a roadie delivers a pot of incense to the mic stand at center stage. The band gets a juicy dub groove chugging away, and the band jams with it, and then jams a while longer. Then the disembodied voice of Lee Perry, still in the wings, comes over the PA in his thick Jamaican accent, “Hallooooo! … Natural! … Mystic! … I am mystical and magical…” And then… he doesn’t appear yet. You’re wondering where the heck he is. Then the song stops. Then another dub groove starts. And finally Lee Perry wanders onto the center stage, as if by accident, and realizes where he is and greets the crowd.

Lee Perry is at this point in his career kind of like a Jamaican Yoda, a wizened master of reggae speaking in indecipherable riddles, though unlike Yoda he also has a serious penchant for bling and dresses like a starship commander from the Planet Rocksteady. One is not sure if there’s a difference between his stage dress and everyday clothes anymore. He’s wearing a Napoleonic era military jacket with gold epaullettes and a rank insignia on the sleeve that incorporates the word “JAH”. From head to toe (literally!) he’s adorned with medals, amulets, rings, and all assortment of shiny baubles: pinned to every last inch of his baseball cap, in the laces of his shoes, a mass of necklaces, rings, earrings and pins.

He can still move pretty well, jogging in place, kicking and chopping, hopping from one side of the stage to the other. His vocals are barely comprehensible, delivered in a stream of consciousness, freestyles that start as lyrics of some of the best known reggae songs of all time, many of which he produced, then just spin off into a reverie of free association and half finished sentences.

“I love the you, you love the me, so together we should … ahh you know.”


“Clap! Clap! Chop! Chop! Chop stick! Chop quick!”

On Max Romeo’s “Chase the Devil,” he mostly repeated the phrase “Iron boots! Iron boots! Iron boots!”

The lyrical improvisations sometimes even jump from one song to the next. Tunes included Max Romeo’s “War ina Babylon” and Bob Marley’s “Sun is Shining”, “Stir it Up” and the natural closer, “Exodus.” The set list was a crumpled ball of paper that he kicked around the stage floor.

The set list probably didn’t matter, because his band knows it by heart and is friggin unbelievable, able to play the heaviest dub grooves imaginable in their sleep, which is actually almost how they play. But there’s also a magic in the air, because this is the one, original LSP. There’s the magic of everything Perry’s ever done and almost half a century of reggae and ska that he’s been involved in. That’s why this crowd of reggae heads is here, and why they love it so much. And the last tune, “Exodus” totally rocks.

Text by David Frazier Posted on 2016.7.23 00:17