Toots and The Maytals top the impressive lineup of reggae icons at Chicago’s inaugural Reggae Fest.

The day was overcast and hot as people gathered in Addams/Medill Park on Chicago’s South Side to participate in the first annual Chicago Reggae Fest. The line-up for the inaugural event was heavy on renowned reggae musicians, 11 bands in all.

Charley Organaire Cameron, the mouth organ player who introduced the harmonica to Ska and reggae, played with his Sunshine Festival Band early in the afternoon. He played on many classic reggae and ska albums supporting the all-time greats, such as Bob Marley, Prince Buster, and The Skatalites, to name a few.

Charley took the stage to great cheer from the audience. His masterful harmonica playing smooth and romantic tenor voice connected with fans as couples skanked along with his singing. The highlight of the performance was Charley singing,”Never Stop Loving You,” his 2003 track featured in the movie, Love Jones. He also gave a shout out to the Jamaican Consul General, Lloyd J. Hyde, who was in attendance.

Derrick Morgan, known as the “King of Ska,” was next on the bill. Derrick Morgan, whose career included some of the most relevant 1960s skinhead (not associated with the later white supremacy movement) reggae of the 60s and 70s, sang many of his classic cuts, such as “Tougher Than Tough.” The crowd sang along with Derrick creating a serious Ska chorus.

Half way through Derrick’s set, he stopped and called for “Charley” to come on stage and give him a hand. Having these two heavyweights of ska sing a duet was a rare privilege. Backing up these singers successfully and with a lot of passion was the Minnesota ska unit, The Prizefighters.

Another stand-out performance was that of Los Angeles’ Hepcat, a band well-chosen for this lineup as they play a more soulful version of reggae/ska, comparable to 60s era music. The dual lead singer, Greg Lee and Alex Desert, successfully played off each other, singing and dancing. Skank pits formed throughout the park. The Hepcat performance reached a crescendo when they played Derrick Harriot’s “Monkey Ska.” Their monkey like moves sent the crowd into a monkey dance frenzy.

The crowd relished another musical performance of near-mythic proportions as the great Lee Scratch Perry took the stage dressed as the cosmic Rastafari Admiral of cool wearing a Marcus Garvey-style military coat. “Scratch” is considered one of the founders of dub reggae, whose music and style has influenced modern music immeasurably.

Lee Perry presented his funky dub vibe singing into a beer can microphone, pacing the stage like a professor teaching class, a class on dub reggae. The crowd enjoyed the funky Rastafari jam, dancing and singing, and lost in the moment. The 80-year-old Perry, whose physicality has been affected by age, still has a powerful and transformative roar.

Who better to end a Reggae Fest than the iconic band credited for coining the term, “reggay.” Toots And The Maytals have, for decades, played the world over spreading their love of reggae. Their music has influenced many types of contemporary music. The band only recently returned to touring after taking three years off following Frederick “Toots” Hibbert being hit in the head with a bottle during a concert.

They opened with their classic “Pressure Drop,” with Toots dressed in white biker leathers and black shades. Three charismatic backup singers soulfully supported his smooth vocals. The Maytals left none disappointed playing their hits, such as “Funky Kingston” and “54-46 Was My Number.”

The weather, which stayed at bay during the festival, let loose in a warm summer rain as the finished their set with the John Denver classic, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

The first annual Reggae Fest was a great success, and it set the bar high for next year; the unbelievable performances by so many foundational reggae musicians will be hard to top. It was a day of great music with a whole lot of love.

Toots & The Maytals
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Lee “Scratch” Perry
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