Album Review: Bunny Wailer – The Solomonic Singles Pt.1 (Tread Along 1969-1976) & Pt.2 (Rise and Shine)

In the reggae pantheon, no one stands taller than the original Wailing Wailers, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. These three men, as members of that seminal group, ushered in the roots reggae revolution of the 1970s and still exert a profound influence on the genre and, music in general, today. They were artists with three distinct personalities who, for a short period of time in the late 1960s and early 70s, came together to create their own mystical musical brew. This incarnation of the Wailers produced two albums for Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, Catch A Fire, in 1972, and Burnin’ in 1973, both works considered classics and still retain their power today.

Marley was the populist who pushed the boundaries of reggae and achieved world-wide acclaim, for himself and the music. Tosh, reggae’s original raised fist, the Steppin’ Razor, advocated militancy in response to the indignities Babylon imposed on the poor and downpressed and yet still found time to mingle with rock royalty, like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, long time reggae fans. But Wailer, Marley’s childhood friend, was arguably the spiritual center of the group, with the air of a Rastafarian elder, even as a young man. In 1973, during its U.S. tour with Sly and the Family Stone, Wailer decided to quit the band and eschew the demands of music as a business. (Tosh left the Wailers that same year.) For Wailer, the music was and is, first and foremost, a medium for expressing his faith, and he distrusted Blackwell’s intentions for the group. Wailer may also have been wary of Blackwell’s perceived view that the band was Marley’s, not a group of co-equals.

In retrospect, Wailer’s suspicions may have been well-founded. The album version of Catch A Fire contains no songs by Wailer. Burnin’ has two, both credited to Jean Watt, “Hallelujah Time” and “Pass It On,” even though Wailer was actively writing songs. In addition, two records that document the 1973 tour, Live At The Record Plant ’73 (Roxvox 2015) and Live ’73, Paul’s Mall, Boston, MA, (Klondike, 2016), also feature no Wailer compositions although both are incendiary performances. To add insult to injury, while the back cover of Live At The Record Plant shows a picture of the whole band, including Bunny Wailer on vocals and percussion, the liner notes indicate that, at this point, he had been replaced by Joe Higgs.

Today, the man formerly known as Neville O’Riley Livingston remains the only surviving member of the original group. Marley was felled by cancer in 1981, Tosh murdered in his Jamaican home in 1987. Wailer has released about 29 long players to date, including four roots masterpieces, Black Heart Man, Rock ‘n’ Groove, Roots Radics Rockers Reggae and Liberation, a 1989 release that compensated for some of the more uneven work he released in the 1980s. In 2013, Reincarnated Souls, a three CD set, showed a strong return to form and Wailer is currently playing dates in the United States.

Wailer, a devout Rastafarian, has remained mostly below the international radar and has rarely courted controversy. In 2013, a spat with Snoop Dogg (Lion), the (possibly) erstwhile Rasta and well-known rapper, spilled out into public when Wailer challenged Snoop’s commitment to and knowledge of the faith. Wailer, who reportedly had been slated to work with Snoop on his 2013 reggae album, Reincarnated, has over the years consistently objected to the commercialization of Rastafarianism and its public face, reggae music and has also insisted that a proclivity for smoking weed alone, a sacrament for Rastas, does not make one a true member of the faithful. (In 1967, Wailer served fourteen months in prison on a marijuana possession charge, an experience that still smarts today.) Snoop insisted that this was merely a commercial dispute, brought to the fore by his unwillingness to meet Wailer’s contractual demands for participating on the album.

Like Marley and Tosh, Wailer started his own imprint, Solomonic, early in his career and the label has released many of his records in Jamaica as well those of other roots singers he championed and produced. Mint Solomonic sides, particularly singles released by the label, can be difficult to find and some fetch considerable sums on vinyl market websites such as Discogs. To remedy this, Dub Store of Japan has released two collections of Bunny Wailer singles, The Solomonic Singles 1: Tread Along 1969-1976, and Solomonic Singles 2: Rise & Shine 1977-1986. These cuts have never before been released outside of Jamaica and they reaffirm Wailer’s importance in the history of popular music.

Dub Store Japan is one of the world’s best sources for reggae music and, along with California- based EB Records, is an important source for both used and new reggae music. Dub Store has its own imprint, Dub Store Records and it has used the label to champion reggae artists that deserve greater or renewed attention. For example, in 2007, Dub Store Records released a collection of recordings by one of the greatest all time roots singers, Kiddus I, a man whose influence was far greater than his golden age output. While Dub Store releases are not inexpensive, great attention has been paid to the packaging and the quality of the mastering on the vinyl. The sound quality on older Jamaican recordings varies but Dub Store has done its best to clean up the imperfections in Wailer’s two double LP collections. Both also include extensive liner notes and feature a 2012 interview with the man Jamaicans call Jah B.

One caveat here – many reggae records, particularly singles and extended players from the late 1960s and 1970s, were often released on multiple labels and their affiliates and credits can be confusing and contradictory. Time lines, song writing credits and a specific track’s musicians can be a muddled mess across identical releases on “different” labels. There can be overlaps in the riddims as well. This doesn’t diminish the music of course, but may require some detective work to sort out the players. For this reason, the biggest disappointment in these two collections is the lack of a track by track analysis of each song, its origins, previous incarnations, riddims and formats. Lyrics would be nice too because Wailer has a lot to say.

Both collections include rare releases, re-worked classics and dub versions of some of Wailer’s most important songs. and, on some cuts, Wailer is backed by the core of the original Wailers band, including brothers Family Man (Aston Barrett) on bass and Carlie Barrett (Carlton) on drums. Tosh also assists on some tracks, playing melodica and guitar. Another crack instrumental outfit, the Roots Radics, backs up Wailer on later songs.

Singles 1 opens with the song that provides its title, “Tread Along,” a rock steady number from 1969, that features Wailer’s plaintive voice, which is warmer and sweeter than that of Marley and Tosh. “Bide Up” is a reworked version of a song that appears on Black Heart Man, then “Searching for Love” and its version, “Must Skank.” Other highlights include the 12-inch version of Amagideon, a stand out on Black Heart Man, with extra power here, and its dub, Amagideon Dub, what may be the definitive take on “Dream Land,” an early Wailing Wailers staple, with its soaring harmonies. The sufferer’s anthem, “Battering Down Sentence” and its version, written about his 1967 prison sentence, an alternative take on Black Heart Man’s “Fighting Against Convictions,” contains Wailer’s typical hard-hitting lyrics when commenting on the trials of living in Babylon.

Battering down sentence, fighting against convictions
I find myself growing in an environment
Where finding food is just as hard as paying the rent
In trodding these roads of trials and tribulations
I’ve seen where some have died in desperation
To keep battering down sentence, fighting against convictions.

Singles 2 features the crushing instrumental version of Tosh’s “Anti-Apartheid,” the 12-inch version of “Rise and Shine,” a hit in the U.K., “Cease Fire” and “Rule Dancehall,” Wailer’s foray into dancehall, and its version. All are among the best roots reggae ever released. Like Singles 1, Singles 2 includes versions and dubs featured as B-sides of singles. Cuts like the 12-inch version of 1974’s “Arab Oil Weapon” still feels prescient today. All in all, both collections are the work of a gifted musician, steadfast in his beliefs, who deserves the wider audience claimed by his early and better known bandmates.

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