“The Return: Attitude of Gratitude.”
In the panoply of summer reggae festivals, Reggae on the River has long stood as the pinnacle event. The familiar shortening of Reggae on the River’s name to simply “Reggae” patently bears this out conspicuously and manifestly, almost beyond the many superlatives that grace “Reggae.” Of all of the reggae festivals throughout the world, there is only one [that I know of] that we call just Reggae.
After a several-year absence of the festival as we once knew it, 2013 is the year that Reggae Returned Home. Home to French’s Camp, Piercy, CA, in Southern Humboldt County. Through various iterations in form, Reggae’s return was a long-awaited (and at times a seemingly impossible) homecoming. Changes in venue, production and promotion, coupled with a near bursting-at-the-seems attendance, and related challenges in sustainable management of the festival, all would have conspired to end many lesser events, but—the community commitment, will and desire of Southern Humboldt, and specifically the nexus that is the Mateel Community Center, brought forth again the abiding flowering of one of Humboldt’s true cultural treasures: Reggae on the River.
Reggae was back this year with an extra day, perhaps taking a cue from larger Jamaican and European multi-day events (or maybe just wanting to give it up, to pay it forward to the DJs, artists, and fans who could come early for the festivities). Kicking things off on Thursday was like having a private party back on old familiar grounds, a Reggae family reunion; the perfect way to ramp up, nice an’ easy, to start with a slow-burn into the long festival weekend. The soundsystem showcase heralded many of the finest favorites from The Emerald Triangle (and beyond), including Jade Steel, Stevie Culture, Joseph Israel, Bobby Hustle, Wisdom, and Ishi Dube. Early guest appearances by Reggae headliners Nkulee Dube, Army and Kabaka Pyramid, and the headlining set by MC Zulu (backed by producer Kush Aurora) kept us jumping, winding and grooving, looking forward even more to the unfolding weekend.
By the time Friday morning rolled up (and really even from my initial check-in, Wednesday evening), the pervasive Attitude of Gratitude was truly tangible—everywhere! From person to person, place to place, and face to face: everyone was happy, upful and bright; so grateful to be back at Reggae. The old familiar greeting “Happy Reggae” floated easily from neighbor to neighbor throughout the festival grounds, the staff and volunteers warmly echoing the same to campers walking by. We all shared in the welcome together, so blessed and so grateful to be living together in unity.
In years past, the party that is Reggae had gotten out of hand, unruly, and family-friendly for only the most intrepid and experienced festival-goers. Broken glass, prevalent hard drugs use, and nitrous tanks hissing into the night had crept in as part of Reggae’s landscape and reputation. (Maybe not the first-choice-festie to take the kids to: it was like—THE Party!) This year, very little if any of the old rubble was strewn about. That pervasive air of gratitude graced the village, with people seeming to take better care of themselves, each other, and the festival grounds at large. While there was drinking to be sure, and of course plenty a-sacramental blazing lifting the heights higher, people just seemed to keep their loads better than I remember through previous years at Reggae (as well as at the nearby Reggae Rising). Things were nice and clean, grounds and vibes-wise. The families with their youth assembled, and especially those with young newborns, seemed more comfortable living and moving amongst the reggae village on The River.
With time away as a multi-day camping event, it seems the Mateel Community Center was able to reconsider and reassess how to throw a sustainable roots party. The ubiquitous appearance of cigarette-butt cans throughout the concert bowl was a constant reminder to tend after the little things in the care of our surroundings. Ticket sales were capped at 6,000, plus another estimated 2,000-2,500 support, including staff, volunteers, vendors, media, performers and other guests. The show was completely sold out for Saturday and Sunday (and possibly Friday?). While there were many who were disappointed to not attend in person, the nearly halving of the previous Reggae attendance brought the festival back to the size of some of the cherished days, when we could fully marinate in the roots vibes, bask completely in the music and the sun, and still have room to move through the bowl, without being shoulder-to-shoulder for most of the nighttime hours. I love a crowd, and I’m sure Reggae will grow again, but it is really nice to have that space to wind with your woman, to be close with her, and still kinda close to the stage!
For those in the area outside of the sold-out show, there was still the live broadcast from KMUD (great to hear back at camp too!), who augmented the heartical tremendous live sets with deeper reasonings from the artists’ press-tent sessions. Massive Big-Ups go out to KMUD for the unprecedented job they did—bringing every stage performer into the press-tent for interviews, and then sharing this all with the radio (and online) audiences. (Check out KMUD.org for this year’s performance and interview archives!)
As always, the gathering is at the center of festival life: seeing old friends and making friends anew; finally meeting those who we may have been in contact with, or friends-of-friends having not yet met face-to-face; and deepening relationships amongst all of those paths. Just like the wooded hills and Eel River that fully embrace the French’s Camp area, Reggae becomes the perfect convergence and confluence for our reggae family to meet in One Love and Inity—I even met Prezident Brown casually strolling through the campgrounds shortly before Morgan Heritage took the stage to close out the festival weekend. Prez and I talked about his new works, musical production, and his early stage time performing on Saturday. Again, I was met with the pervasive air of grace and gratitude, Prezident Brown giving thanks for being able to lift the vibes early in the day.
Every artist going on stage at Reggae knows that it is on. Each one responds so naturally to the electric charge in the air, and the glorious wafts of sensimillia (and indica) rising up through the sky; giving back the same energy and strong musical meditation to The Massive. Mateel Community Center selected with care the assemblage of artists on this year’s bill: high-energy, conscious roots, dancehall and world artists. All artists who could bring a settle and grounded vibe to the festivities, who at the same time could uplift to the Ighest Ights. We got to see the rising Roots Revival artists Kabaka Pyramid and Chronixx (Chronixx for his first U.S. appearance); the long-awaited return of the family dynasty that is Morgan Heritage (who still have more musical chapters to write); the family legacy of Nkulee Dube singing some of her father Lucky Dube’s (who graced Reggae on the River’s stage several times) classic tracks, lifting her voice and the audience to Zion; Army (“Mr. Warm and Easy”) delivering the roots with a cool militancy, soothing and strong; Anthony B king-stepping and Steven Newland flying, while breaking Babylon walls down with music; Julian Marley heartically delivering the familiar echoes of Bob through tunes original and covered; the list goes on, and (without listing the full line-up) every artist deserves mention! The lights and LCD video array added so much ambiance to the night time performances, dressing the stage and performers in a creative bath of color, smoke and imagery; and drawing even those furthest-back in the venue into the bristling excitement of the moment.
A personal shout-out, and Massive Big-Ups goes out to the Mateel Community Center, who collectively brought Reggae on the River back, as a Phoenix rising out of the Ashes, blazing a hotter fire like never before. To Justin Crellin, who threw himself selflessly into the multitude of tasks at hand necessary to carry out the event of this scale—and for it to run smoothly—to take control and direction, to carefully and lovingly guide it forward, so that Reggae could mek the return, so that Reggae will have many bright days ahead.
And not to take away from any of the previous years spent loving and living reggae music on the banks of Eel River’s South Fork. Every year is still cherished and warmly remembered. Some of the performances I’ve seen here (and slightly downriver) still resonate so strongly in my memory; and many of the friendships forged in those past years remain true and strong to this day. But for me, the vibes and overall festival this year at Reggae on the River were the most-high, most-wonderful, and purest I have experienced. The perfect convergence of music, friends, place and vibe. The reggae family once again gathered, attired in all of our regal finery, with the palpable outpouring of gratitude and grace blessing every corner and moment of Reggae on the River. And again for me: The. Best. Ever.
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