Half a century, that’s how long Frederick “Toots” Hibbert and his bands the Maytals have been performing their irresistible brand of ska reggae, a career that’s taken them from the legendary recording studios of Kingston, Jamaica to world acclaim and, recently, to the opening credits in Shane Meadows’ film This Is England. Toots even has a claim to have invented the word ‘reggae’, with his 1968 track inviting audiences to “do the reggay”, which was then a type of dance.
There are few of the genuine old school of reggae who are in such good shape. Toots is in his mid-60s but could be much younger. He is short and portly but also mercurial, like a capering hobbit dressed in a black leather waistcoat, bandana and shades. He has an unaffected star quality and a kindly smile and is apparently perfectly willing to belt out the same songs he’s been singing for nearly 50 years; gigantic ska records like the opening number, Pressure Drop, accompanied by three backing singers, one of whom is Toots’ daughter.
He sounds a little hoarse, though, which has the crowd worrying that the schedule for his anniversary tour is too gruelling, but he soon warms up, sticking his fist in the air and skanking up and down on one foot. Toots picks up a guitar at one point and even plays a mouth organ with skill. It’s impossible to dislike him.
It’s equally impossible to dislike the music. Toots And The Maytals were formed when ska was all the rage and the repertoire is almost uniformly upbeat and happy even when dealing with subjects such as Toots’ imprisonment as a young man in Jamaica (54-46 That’s My Number). Tonight his band reproduce the old music with care and skill, the bassist and drummer seeming to be of similar age to Toots, though the electric guitar player is a much younger musician. Sadly, there is no brass section and these parts are played on a keyboard.
Like most reggae artists, Toots has never been afraid of a cover and produces his versions of Louie Louie by The Kinks and the superb Take Me Home, Country Roads, his masterful version of the John Denver song, with the words West Virginia changed to West Jamaica. During this number, lighters are held in the air throughout the Brixton Academy auditorium.
But the biggest surprise happens as the band start playing the intro to Monkey Man. Toots looks into the front of the crowd and gestures to someone who clambers on stage. It is …. Ronnie Wood, another ageing musician who, from a distance at least, could be much younger; though unlike Toots, Wood is lean and gangling. Wood picks up Toots’ guitar and starts strumming while the band bash through an extended version of the track, Toots leaning with his arm around Wood’s shoulder and thanking “my friend Ron” when he waves and leaves.
The finale, though, is 54-46. It’s an old favourite, with a chance for the audience to participate as Toots sings “give it to me, one time” and the crowd shouts “huh!”. Toots seems to have extended this section and tonight sings “give it to me, 14 time!” to which the audience dutifully responds. Toots replies “you’re the only audience to do it 14 time!”. Given the thousands of times he’s performed this song, it’s unlikely that we really are the first audience to give it to him 14 times, but we nevertheless feel rather proud of ourselves.