Toots and the Maytals Unplugged on Strawberry Hill Review

Released 2012.  

BBC Review

These songs will never grow old, and this is Toots’ best album in years.

Angus Taylor 2012

Frederick "Toots" Hibbert is one of the great voices in popular music. His voice has remained timeless since he split from the golden harmonies of "Jerry" Matthias and "Raleigh" Gordon of the Maytals – even if the digital production of his later work has dated. But this acoustic revisit to his vintage hits is such an inspired idea that it’s a wonder no one thought of it before.

Recorded on Island patron Chris Blackwell's colonial ex-plantation property Strawberry Hill, Unplugged marries the unique instrument that is Toots' pipes with his own guitar plus percussion, bass and his daughter’s backing vocals. This being a scuffs-and-all live jam, Toots hangs loose with the lyrics, going off into revival-style exhortations and adlibs.

The mood is playful: Toots counts “one, two, nine, 10,” before the uplifting but foreboding Pressure Drop, and remarks that “This song is easy to play – not so easy to sing, though” of the mighty Monkey Man.

Even more recent material, like True Love Is Hard to Find (the title piece from 2004’s Grammy winning duet project), has a simple grit the studio cuts lack.

Also present are historic milestones: 1966 Jamaican Festival Song contest winner Bam Bam, and Do the Reggay (thought to be the debut use of the word on record – although Larry Marshall and Clancy Eccles have claims to the first tune in the style).

The major criticism is that, given it dovetails with 50 years of Jamaican Independence, more of the Maytals' old ska numbers could have been included. The one example here, I’ll Never Grow Old, (with My New Name tacked on at the end) is a high point.

The album comes with a DVD containing three filmed recordings. There’s the Strawberry jam, a 1981 concert for German TV institution Rockpalast, and the informative – if uncritical – documentary Reggae Got Soul. Here, we hear that Toots wrote Monkey Man for then-producer Leslie Kong’s legendarily ugly brother.

Just as Toots' fellow Kong label-mate Jimmy Cliff recently went back-to-basics and recorded a late landmark, Mr Hibbert has done the same. These songs will never grow old, and this is Toots’ best album in years.

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