The De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill has been described as “one of the UK’s most celebrated architectural landmarks.” An Art Deco exhibition and concert hall situated right on the seafront, it looks as if it belongs in Florida rather than East Sussex.
It was warm July night when Toots and the Maytals played there. Crowds milled around the entrance and the scent of ganja hung in the air, despite the presence of so many security guards. There’s nothing new in that - it was a reggae gig after all - but once inside the first things you see are an art gallery and bookstore, and then at the far end of the foyer is a wide spiral staircase flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows that offer breathtaking views of the ocean.
Just yards away was the 1,500 capacity main hall, which filled quickly. Visits by reggae legends from Jamaica are occasions to celebrate and whilst the over 50s were well represented there was no lack of atmosphere. The crowd had come to enjoy themselves and they were expecting nothing less than affirmation - something that Toots has been delivering for decades, ever since he and the original Maytals exploded onto Jamaica’s music scene back in the sixties.
The support band was Captain Accident and the Disasters - a reggae band from Cardiff who mix a little rock in with their ska and reggae influences, and whose set drew mainly from latest album Wake And Break. The Captain’s songs are well constructed and also well written, although it was difficult to hear the lyrics since the sound quality wasn’t great and in fact wouldn’t improve until midway through Toots’ set which begun as it started - on a high, and with Toots himself in imperious form.
Short in height but not in stature, he walked on stage wearing a dark, sleeveless tunic emblazoned with gold and red flashes, and that showed off his upper body strength - a product of hours spent in the gym, preparing for weeks on the road. Matching trousers with twin hoops of glittery colour, a black bandana, wraparound shades and gleaming white trainers complete the look. Onstage, Toots acts and dresses like a star, which is something most of this audience have grown to expect from their musical heroes. He’s also incredibly fit, despite his mobility having been impaired by a knee operation, and the fact that he’s not far off from celebrating his 75th birthday. He therefore has to be economical with his movements, yet it’s a high-energy show and he’s forever prompting those around him to give a bit more, the crowd included. He’s a master showman but when you’ve got a repertoire like he has, then anything’s possible.
He opened with Reggae Got Soul - a song that let everyone know where he’s coming from, and had the whole place skanking. It’s music that makes you feel happy and wanting to dance but then you could say the same thing about so many of his hits - Sweet And Dandy, Pomp And Pride, Bam Bam and Pressure Drop included. When Toots first started out, he was belting out gospel infused ska in an all-male vocal trio with Jerry Mathias and Raleigh Gordon. All three shared the name Maytals, but the other two left or retired many years ago. Today’s Maytals have gone the way of the Wailers and it’s the band members - and three girl backing singers, including his daughter Leba - who wear that mantle now. Some of the musicians have been with him for decades, and even played on many of his original recordings from back in the late sixties and early seventies. Jackie Jackson, who Toots describes as “Jamaica’s greatest ever bass player,” is one of them. He stood immobile at the back, holding his big red guitar but otherwise half-hidden by drummer Paul Douglas, who also played on Desmond Dekker’s Israelites and countless other reggae hits.
When Toots last toured the UK twelve months ago, it marked his return to the stage after a lengthy absence. In 2013 he’d been performing at a festival in Virginia and was halfway through Take Me Home Country Roads when a vodka bottle flew out of the darkness and hit him on the forehead, causing him injuries and considerable distress. The incident sidelined him for two years but there would be no repeat during this latest tour. Throughout the show a man stood at the side of the stage with arms folded, looking out at the crowd. Also, Toots noticeably stayed further back from the front than usual. Such details didn’t stop people from enjoying themselves, but they were indications that something had changed.
The musical interludes between songs that were characteristic of last year’s tour weren’t so evident this time round, although we did get extended versions of Louie Louie and Never Get Weary, with Toots talking to the crowd as a preacher would, urging them to keep going despite the difficulties in their lives and to stay focussed. Toots may have been raised in the church but the occasional cry of “Rastafari!” told its own story. Whilst he’s never worn dreadlocks, Rasta lies at the heart of his core beliefs. It was he who gave Morgan Heritage the idea to write Don’t Haffi Dread [To Be Rasta] but then there’s spirituality in anything he does, even when striding back on stage for an encore and unleashing a frenetic Monkey Man, before launching into one of the best-known lyrics in all reggae music. “I said, ‘stick it up mister. Hear what I say sir. Get your hands in the air sir...’” The place was in pandemonium by then, and there were happy faces everywhere you looked. This wasn’t a classic Toots and the Maytals’ gig in truth but I doubt anyone at the De La Warr Pavilion that night really minded, or even noticed come to that...