Marley’s final live performance is a strangely saddening listen.
David Katz 2011
Serving as the final document of Bob Marley’s exceptional career, Live Forever can only be described as a strange beast. This double-CD set has the entire 90-minute concert given to a capacity audience at Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theatre in September 1980, which would prove to be the reggae icon’s last-ever performance. It was undertaken a mere three days after Marley’s terrible collapse in Central Park, precipitated by the cancer that was killing him, which brought a clear diagnosis that his days were truly numbered, and when listening to the concert in retrospect, a sense of confused anguish seems to linger in the wings.
It is highly unusual for a Marley release to yield sorrow as its primary reaction. The Wailers’ stage performances were joyous affairs, awesome in their displays of musical mastery, and for the forceful offerings of creativity and spirituality that Marley served up in equal measure. However, the unfortunate truth of Live Forever is that most listeners will be saddened by its contents, with a clearly exhausted Marley struggling to hold things together.
The start is rocky, with Bob sounding sapped of strength and preoccupied on Natural Mystic and Positive Vibration, the latter being unusually slow. He also struggles to stay in key, and in time, on Them Belly Full, while guitarist Junior Marvin overcompensates with screeching solos. Although things improve with The Heathen, War and Zimbabwe, Marley never fully gels with the band, and some tracks devolve by default into extended dub workouts. Nevertheless, the Barrett Brothers’ rhythm section is rock solid, and Seeco Patterson’s percussion adds atmospheric texture, as does Tyrone Downey’s melodic keyboard riffs.
Towards the end of the set, Marley seems to have fun with Jamming, despite sounding uncharacteristically hoarse, and the first encore, Redemption Song, is quite moving, but he continues to sound ‘off’ through the final numbers. Yet even under such trying conditions, the Wailers retain the utmost professionalism, reminding why they were always steps above any other reggae act in the live arena.
Marley fanatics will surely welcome the appearance of this release, but the fact of the matter is that it pales in comparison to the other live material already available; for a truly representative artefact, stick to Live!, Babylon by Bus, or Live at the Roxy.