Steel Pulse Phillips Backyard Weekender, Victoria BC, July 26
Published Jul 27, 2019The entity known as Steel Pulse is a hodgepodge of members assembled from several generations of lineups, only a couple of whom were around when they played the first Rock Against Racism carnival back in 1978, a couple who weren't around for when they contributed "Can't Stand It" to the soundtrack for Spike Lee's seminal 1989 film Do the Right Thing. Simply put, they are a band that counts significantly more past members than current ones, yet they've managed to craft a relatively steady output of top-drawer reggae since the late '70s, including the Grammy-winning 1986 effort Babylon the Bandit, when the outfit from Birmingham, England became the first non-Jamaican act to win the award.
Regardless of their origins, these guys sure brought a pot of water up to a simmer, slow-cooking the crowd in its own juices. Founding member and lead vocalist David Hinds hardly needed a bright orange tank, as he shone on that stage all his own, his voice inflected with that raspy, seen some shit but gonna sing my blues away grit. Their guitarist laid down a sick solo on "Wild Goose Chase" from their 1984 album Earth Crisis, followed by some sizzle from the saxophone, but Hinds was the true presence up front.
The rhythm section of drummer Wayne Clarke and bassist Amlak Tafari have been feeling the pulse since 2005. Clarke was solid, but Tafari came the closest to stealing Hinds' fire. When Tafari came to the front of the stage and started grinding for the murky dub of "Soldiers" from their 1978 debut, Handsworth Revolution, an uplifting jam that hinted at the sting of reality that haunts the deepest, most spiritual reggae, he brought the look and swagger of "Macho Man" Randy Savage. At times, he was happy enough to blend into the background behind Clarke, but when he brought the sass, the spotlight was his for the taking.
Arguably the most impactful moment of the set came when the guys dropped "Don't Shoot" from 2019's Mass Manipulation, their first new album in 15 years. It's a very Black Lives Matter composition, continuing their legacy of rocking against racism. The song ended with the sounds of gunfire, all six beautiful black men onstage standing stoically with their hands in the air. Shit got real for a moment there, a reminder that Canada is not isolated from this nonsense. Good on them for staying true to their cause for all these years.
Lord knows the world hasn't changed all that much since Steel Pulse last visited Victoria in the early '80s. The world needs all the allies it can get. No one can afford to retire from this fight.