Mykal Rose with Sly Dunbar/Lloyd Parks - live in Philadelphia (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Mykal Rose with Sly Dunbar / Lloyd Parks

live in Philadelphia (2019)

live show

The thing about Mykal Rose is that he never smiles. Even when he’s playing some of his more upbeat numbers, like “Party Next Door” or “Stalk of Sinsimella,” a deep, rumbling undercurrent carries the bouncy rhythm- the result of which is a sort of cosmic intensity that pulsates through his songs.

This was made especially apparent at his June 28 show at the Warehouse on Watts in Philadelphia - organized by the up-and-coming Whagwaan Culture group, who are making moves to bring more Jamaican artists to the city. Even though the show was a massive 110 plus minute set, Rose, the former lead singer of Black Uhuru, and his band only actually played about 14 songs or so, with each song given an extended (and in some case doubly extended) treatment. The purpose of this was twofold. On one side, Rose was able to really draw out the astral heaviness of his songs as they morphed and curled during their extended second halves. The other was to give his current bandmates a rightful spot to shine.

Orignally, the tour was supposed to be Mykal Rose with iconic drum and bass duo Sly and Robbie, calling back to Black Uhuru’s famed (and Grammy winning) peak. Unfortunately, Robbie fell ill jut before the show, so while Sly Dunbar was behind the kit, nearly equally landmark bassist Lloyd Parks was brought in the fill the huge shoes of Robbie Shakespeare.

That’s no easy task. Lloyd Parks, who was an original member of the Dennis Brown band and played with the Techniques. As an interesting note, Parks actually played with Dunbar before the formation of Sly and Robbie in Skin, Flesh & Bones, so this particular pairing had an undercurrent of its own. (An in fact, Rose also recorded with Parks before joining Uhuru!) Well, as I was saying, it’s no easy feat to step in for Sly, but if anyone could do it, it was Llloyd Parks, who favored an energetic, but powerful clean strike, that straddled the line between the simple-clean reggae of the Junjo era ‘80s and the lumbering heaviness of the ‘70s roots titans. That is to say, the guy was on point.

Meanwhile, there’s a reason why Rose called Dunbar “the greatest drummer in the world” twice during the set. Dunbar smashes those drums. With Black Uhuru and Peter Tosh, Dunbar is famous for bringing a driving, four-four rhythm to reggae in lieu of the more rolling one-drop rhythm. Throughout the night, these tunes were played fast and hard- yet, due in part to Dunbar’s “less is more” approach, the essential soul was kept in the rhythms. Dunbar doesn’t really hit a lot compared to other drummers, but when he hits the skins, he HITS.

There is no more fitting backdrop for Rose, because in all his eras- pre-Black Uhuru, Anthem years, “Ganja Bonanza,” through “Shootout” and “Stronger,”- Rose has always maintained a steely intensity. Case-in-point, during the entire sweltering set, Rose stayed clad in a full suit and kept his eyes hidden behind his trademark shades- and when he did take them off to wipe sweat from his brow, he made sure to turn his back to the audience, only returning to face the front one his sunglasses were put back on. Even though you couldn’t see his eyes, you could tell he kept that severe stare bolted the entire time.

This concentration manifested in the music for sure. The set was made up mostly of Uhuru classics, with mega hits like “Shine Eyed Girl,” “General Penitentiary,” and “Solidarity” each being given extended treatments. Rose, for his part, still sounds fantastic- his voice a combination of low rumble soul and a high pitched curve. He still bends out his iconic scat lines like “MMwhoaaoaoaoa” and “Swaaaooooaoooo.” In fact, if you heard just a recording of the show, you’d say it was taken straight from an 84 soundboard recording.

Perhaps one of the most understated of Rose is how he often takes negative topics head on and treats them with a sort of aggression. “General Penitentiary” was soaked in hanging dread as Rose worked through the song. “Plastic Smile” was as much an ominous warning as it was a runthrough of a hit song. Doubtlessly, Rose has played these songs thousands of time, and it’s a testament to both the songs and Rose’s skill that even now, when he performs them, he’s able to summon the same uneasy fear that permeates the studio recordings and made the songs so unique.

Likewise, perhaps unlike other reggae artists, Rose keeps a cold aggression in his songs. He sings with a hard force, as driven by his tracks unusually fast tempo. He often appears angry and apprehensive at once, using lyrics to deal with issues of mental health and oppression. Rose doesn’t always paint a rosy picture at the end of his songs, but due to the fact that he was so steely and engaged at the Philly show, there seems to be an underlying message to not give up.

When I’ve seen Rose on previous tours, he usually would work through about twenty songs or so. For this show, he chose to play fewer songs and give each tune an longer representation and that gave these songs that much more import. Generally, the first half of the songs were the more standard representations. Then, for the extended second halves, Rose would continue to sing the refrain, underscoring a punchy message, or the band would do on the spot dub versions, or Rose would include new lyrics. Some of the more interesting additions were Rose weaving the lyrics to solo hit “Stronger” into the body of an Uhuru song and an extended, and quite unexpected take on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I put a spell on you.” The new Tarrus Riley re-cut of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was worked into the older version’s frame.

Despite the fact that the set was almost all “Classics,” Rose saved newer material for the end. “Shoot Out” was given a fiery live rendition. While the studio album is definitely a “studio” affair, the live version was rawer and rougher, making the violent track that much more violent. Rose concluded the show with a brand new song, “Zoom Zoom.” It bore the hallmarks of a classic Rose, including his trademark force. The placing seemed to be Rose stating that he still has work to do. His lengthy career has proven that he’s never wavered from that task, and if anything, the live Philly show once again cemented that point.