Damian Marley at The Belasco
Photo credit: Jan Salzman
An intensity follows Damian Marley. It isn’t a brooding exhibition of force from the man that goes by “Jr. Gong,”- an homage to his “Tuff Gong” father, Bob. It’s a controlled, introspective concentration that manifests itself as often in smiles as it does sermons dispatched in rapid reggaeton cadence and hip-hop command.
At this sold-out first night of two in downtown Los Angeles the charismatic Jamaican singer worked through much of the repertoire from his latest Stony Hill release, as well as a few dips into his and his father’s past. Marley and his seven-piece band opened the two-hour performance with the pre-recorded intro and lead track from the album, “Here We Go,” then into the hardened plea of “Justice.” Next, he reached back to his chart-topping Welcome to Jamrock record for an R&B pair, “Hey Girl” and “Beautiful,” before offering new cut “Upholstery.”
It was on “Time Travel” that Marley elevated to a higher plane, expressing his pointed social commentary across a chronological trip. The theme carried into the single, “Nail Pon Cross,” with a projected backdrop of Marley and others crucified on utility poles, big and bold behind him. Following a tight rendition of “Love and Inity,” Jr. Gong turned to Bob on a focused and timely reading of “War” into “No More Trouble.” With references to “Exodus,” Marley powered through “Move!” then slid beautifully behind the beat, like a jazz master, on “Everybody Wants to be Somebody.”
The militant reggaeton flash of “R.O.A.R” took the vibe to the darker places, dispensing thoughts on community and crime with gritty substance and a relentless groove. This is where Marley is at his strongest, letting every word be his ammunition. Lightening the mood with the disco soul of “Living it Up,” and another Bob tribute, “Is This Love,” Marley then welcomed brother Stephen “Ragga” Marley for the love letter to marijuana, “Medication.” Ragga’s beaming falsetto belied what was to follow as opening artist Kabaka Pyramid joined the two for a jumping, jubilant run through “Could You Be Loved,” as the three squared-off center stage in a playful exchange of verses.
For an encore that unfolded more like a mini-set, Marley led with “Caution,” into the softer side of “So A Child May Follow.” A third Stony Hill track, the imploring “The Struggle Discontinues,” and its affecting one-drop gave way to his neo-classic “Road to Zion.” Finally, the five-song extra time concluded with a conscientious Jr. Gong directing a slowed rendition of his mega-hit, “Welcome to Jamrock.”
His denim shirt soaked through with sweat, Marley exited without ceremony while his band played out the last bars. The flag of Ethiopia, waved all night, was dutifully lowered. And a capacity crowd exhaled, equally as energized as they were exhausted from such a penetrating appearance by Jr. Gong.