I saw The Wailers once before, when I was 15 years old. Someone handed me a joint the size of a banana on the dance floor and I filed that thrill next to the first time I hit a home run on the baseball field.
Bob Marley died in 1981 and, since this was the mid-'90s, the band was hardly in its prime. But you couldn't tell. It was nothing but hits, both onstage and off.
The band that played on Sunday, Jan. 22, at The Knitting Factory didn't resemble those Wailers at all. The horn section was gone and replaced with a synth. The trio of backup singers with synchronized dance moves were gone. And most of the band, especially the vocal section, looked as if they were born after Marley's death.
And strangely enough, it was a good thing.
No band survives the death of its lead. Sometimes it turns into a different, potentially better band, but it can't go on as it was. And seeing Marley's songs performed without Marley—even by his band—seems a bit like seeing a cover band, especially since his songs are so frequently covered.
On Sunday night, The Wailers opened with a lengthy section of newer and relatively unknown material. Instead of listening for the hit songs, audience members got lost in the music—bone-rattling baselines and trance-inducing beats over which their young leads crooned lyrics of love and revolution with a religious reverence and a timely focus on economic justice.
The Wailers got around to playing Marley's hits as an encore. The band had to. But you can see those songs performed nearly anywhere. The first half of the set was something special. Almost enough to make me say, "Bob who?"