In the fall of 1973, Bob Marley was on the cusp of another existence. It is a transitional moment in his career that is perfectly captured in the long-missing-in-action concert film, “The Capitol Session ‘73.”
In the 10 years since the Wailers had come together in Kingston’s Trench Town, they had gone through various incarnations: the original five- and six-piece line-ups; the vocal harmony trio of Marley, Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh; and the fiery road-band built on bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett and his brother, drummer Carlton Barrett, after they parted ways with Lee “Scratch” Perry.
But now, with a U.S. West Coast tour booked to promote the just-released “Burnin’,” their second album for Island Records in six months, founding member Livingston had departed the fold. A reluctance to travel on an “iron bird” was cited. To overcome this emergency, Joe Higgs, who as a member of the successful Jamaican duo Higgs and Wilson had helped pioneer the island’s original recordings, had agreed to step in. Like the Wailers, Higgs was a resident of Kingston’s Trench Town. He had rigorously coached the young trio in harmony techniques, even insisting they practice at night in a local cemetery to benefit from its perfect acoustics.
Yet from the beginning there was a stop-start nature about this West Coast tour. Though the shows kicked off with a warm-up date at the Matrix club in San Francisco, the Wailers were booked to play 17 dates with Sly and the Family Stone, one of the biggest bands in the United States. But they were chucked off the tour after only four shows, the final one in Las Vegas. It seemed the Jamaican act baffled both Sly Stone’s sophisticated Black audiences and white “underground-rock” concert attendees, unable to empathize in the least with the Jamaican group.
After losing the tour, the Wailers were arranged to be filmed in performance on Oct. 24, 1973 in a four-camera shoot before no more than a dozen onlookers at the iconic Capitol Records Tower in Hollywood (Capitol was the U.S. distributor for Island Records). Overseeing the event as director was Denny Cordell, a friend of Island boss Chris Blackwell and the founder of Shelter Records; Cordell had notably produced hits for, among others, the Moody Blues, the Move, Procol Harum, Joe Cocker and Leon Russell.
Apart from the statuesque Tosh, the presence of the long legendary Higgs takes matters to a further dimension.
Though this footage was lost until now, what emerges is a stunning performance. Beautifully casual and intimate, it shows a Bob Marley few have seen. His locks hardly grown, in the customary blue denims that so suited him, the singer looks so young and almost innocent, initially beaming with happiness, hitting on a spliff as the cameras begin to roll. But as the show progresses, the impassioned energy of what feels like his dynamic lethargy takes. Apart from the statuesque Tosh, the presence of the long legendary Higgs takes matters to a further dimension.
Besides the ever-stalwart rhythm section of the Barrett brothers, Earl “Wya” Lindo’s keyboards stand out. Tosh recruited him after the then-20-year-old impressed the legendary singer during solo sessions at Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle studio in Kingston. The richness of Wya’s sinuous, sensuous keyboards is as much a bedrock of the set as the drums and bass.
Surprisingly, it is a solo and angry Tosh tune, “You Can’t Blame the Youth,” that kicks off the performance. “When every Xmas come/You buy the youth a fancy toy gun,” sings the muscular Tosh, who would later perish by such an instrument. Immediately, the Wailers embody the voice of protest, the essence of one of life’s tribulations cryptically distilled in a song that is not only a searing indictment of the Jamaican educational system but also of thoughtless parenting worldwide.
Marley seems lost in his thoughts as he, Higgs and Tosh ease joyfully into “Rastaman Chant,” from the new “Burnin’” album, with all three of them on red, gold and green percussion, hypnotically heavy nyabinghi hand-drumming from the primal roots of Rastafari. “Babylon yuh throne gone down,” they sing, the faith’s rejection of what it saw as the remnants of slave society and its values. This is a folksy, heavenly sound, a raw Rastafarian music new to the wider world’s ears, so unusual, unpredictable and unexpected it could be coming from the other side of the moon.
By the time of the third number, “Duppy Conqueror,” again from “Burnin’,” both Marley and Tosh have picked up their electric guitars and we are in the more familiar world of straight-ahead rock-reggae. Then there is “Slave Driver,” from “Catch a Fire,” the previous Island album, and “Burnin’ and Lootin’,” the source of the title of the new record.
This is an unremittingly militant set until “Midnight Ravers,” also from the first Island record. Only interrupted by “Put It On” from “Burnin’,” with Tosh’s magically incisive guitar parts, almost all of the rest of the songs are from “Catch a Fire”: Tosh on lead vocals on “Stop That Train”; “Kinky Reggae”; “Stir It Up,” Marley’s first international hit when charted by Johnny Nash the previous year; and “No More Trouble.” The frenzied final number, “Get Up, Stand Up,” presents as clear a statement of intent of the set’s philosophical intent as you could wish for.
There were a couple more shows at the end of the month, again at San Francisco’s Matrix. And a legendary live performance for that city’s KSAN radio station, which ultimately would appear on the “Talkin’ Blues” album. But then it was back to Jamaica. Marley and Tosh would not record together again as members of the Wailers; Higgs also quit the outfit; and “Wya” Lindo the next year joined Taj Mahal.
Marley was ending one chapter, but with the Barrett brothers’ rhythm section still loyal to him, he began to put together another group, which would be known as Bob Marley and the Wailers. Back in Kingston, they would begin recording his next album, “Natty Dread.”
During the rest of the 1970s, this new lineup would cast such a long shadow that the very image of Bob Marley would become the personification of Rastafari to the world.