Reggae revival

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  May 21, 2009

The future of Boston reggae — let's call it Hub Dub — would thus seem bright as Negril at noon. But a lack of consistent brick-and-mortar outlets for live shows (thanks to a debatable reputation for violence that has scared off more than one club owner) has reggae on the run. The latest blow to rock both artists and promoters was the recent shuttering of Bill's Bar on Lansdowne Street, which had been downtown's sole go-to reggae joint since 1995. Still, fans refuse to put defeat in their pipes and smoke it. Thanks to this city's significant place in reggae history, to the current set's increasingly diverse makeup, and to the fundamental Rasta tradition of overcoming adversity, indications suggest that Boston's dutty-rock contingent will continue to get up, stand up, and dance its ass off.

090421_bobmarley-main
On 1973, reggae icon Bob Marley played at the now-defunct Paul’s Mall on Boylston Street as a genre pioneer.

The early years
If TheRocky Horror Picture Show owes much of its iconic cult status to New York City (where the flick played weekend midnights at the Waverly Theatre for 95 weeks starting in 1976), then Cambridge can take credit for helping usher reggae into America's alternative consciousness. In 1972, film director Perry Henzell had the world premiere of his seminal Jimmy Cliff reggae-gangster flick, The Harder They Come, at the dearly departed Orson Welles Cinema on Mass Ave in Harvard Square, where it ultimately ran for eight years. That's also the theater where, in 1976, WBCN sales rep Kenny Greenblatt surprised moviegoers by delivering Cliff in person after he played a set at the Orpheum.

"People were mellow and watching the movie, and, as the credits were rolling, Kenny pushes Jimmy Cliff in front of the screen with the projector shining on him," recalls former WBCN Program Director Sam Kopper, who that night recorded the Orpheum show in Crab Louie Studios, the Boston school bus he had converted into two-thirds hippie motor home and one-third radio-control room. "You can imagine the state of mind — people were smoking boom here and there and everywhere. You could smoke pot in hip restaurants back in those days."

A movement was born — from that moment on, Cambridge staked a claim as the place to go on a Saturday night to get sweet and dandy. One of the many dreadlocked white boys who frequented those legendary bong-a-thons and the concerts that sprung up in their wake was Peter Simon, who would go on to become reggae's most celebrated photographer. Simon — a 1970 Boston University grad who is regarded by reggae's cognoscenti as highly as his sister Carly is by folk-pop fans — had a major hand in accelerating the course of reggae in America.

"Before hearing Jimmy Cliff, I was a Woodstock lunatic," says Simon, who was also the founding staff photographer of the original Cambridge Phoenix back in the late 1960s. "I listened to the Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan, but then the music business got too corporate. Even WBCN — which was very anti-establishment — turned industrial. I loved going to see [The Harder They Come]; the kind of people that movie attracted were the kind of people who I was attracted to."

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