In retrospect, it was silly in the extreme to expect greatness from the Wailers as they performed their 1977 album, “Exodus,” in its entirety at First Avenue on Friday night.
There is this small matter of Bob Marley being dead from brain cancer since 1981. “Exodus” without Marley is like “Born in the U.S.A” without Springsteen, or “Some Girls” without Jagger: landmark music performed by a top-flight band bereft of its charismatic godhead who originally wrote and sang the words. It isn’t just the Wailers. The entire reggae genre hasn’t come close to replacing Marley for 28 years.
Worse than that, the supposed Marley doppelganger Elan Atias was one of those microphone martinets who kept scolding everybody in the sold-out audience to clap and dance. Born the year “Exodus” was released, Atias tried to hide his white pigmentation with a beard and a hoodie. His vocal tone does indeed approximate Marley’s refined rasp and exhortatory curl on the choruses, but dignity and command are not his strong suits.
Too bad, because the mostly anonymous instrumental septet – bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett was the lone original Wailer and good luck finding the name of anyone else but Atias on the bands various websites – was aces. The pair of horns sounded like a quartet (especially on what passed for an “Exodus Overture” before Atias took the stage, and on “Guiltiness”); the guitarist nailed his solos (“Exodus” and “Jammin’ ” were the best) and the chicka-chicka rhythm feels so crucial to the Wailers’ sound; and Barrett and the percussionist and drummer tugged and relaxed the groove in all the right places.
The intensity peaked with the extended versions of the dynamic title track and “Jammin’,” both of which featured the band, and the two female vocalists who moved their arms up by their heads like pistons, in a coordinated movement that was half-frug, half-black power salute. The utter sweetness of “Three Little Birds” captivated the crowd (supremely good-natured despite the crammed quarters) who robustly sang the “every little thing/is gonna be alright” chorus.
After “One Love” finished the “Exodus” part of the show in song-by-song order, the group came back and played nearly another hour, highlighted by Atias’ spirited take on “Redemption Song” and the heartfelt and playful “Is This Love.”
If I’d been smarter, and walked in with the attitude of “No Marley, No Cry,” I’d have enjoyed myself more. As it was, the show was like the contact high I got from the ganja side-smoke that permeated the room – a pleasant memory of more vivid days gone by.
Editor’s note: Here’s a YouTube video of the Wailers and their Exodus concert in Las Vegas last year: