Bob Marley's 64th birthday has drawn a decent selection of mostly Jamaican roots reggae artists, with one of his contemporaries, Little Roy, to headline. If nothing feels exciting or urgent, that's to be expected. The pain of Marley's early death from cancer in 1981, aged 36, is long gone, replaced by a sanctified, seemingly universal acceptance of his art. As with Lennon, this smooths out the rough edges of a man who could occasionally be violent, and whose songs of spiritual insurrection were fierily uncompromising. Roots reggae itself, meanwhile, though the most abidingly beautiful Jamaican music, has been superseded by more aggressive and explicit forms. So tonight is a soft-focus, conservative tribute to Bob, to a crowd happy to dance to his tunes. It feels like it could be happening in any pub back room; tribute enough, maybe, to its subject's impact on Britain's folk culture.
Vincent Nap kicks things off. His easy-going readings of "Get Up, Stand Up" and "Three Little Birds" slip down pleasantly. Tonight's one female act, Kofi, follows morally shifty love song "Waiting in Vain" with "I Shot the Sheriff", the next line of which remains the thinnest legal defence ever offered: "But I did not shoot the deputy..." Kofi concludes with some Obama-themed showbiz spiritual oratory.
Earl 16, a 50-year-old roots singer who worked with Kingston production greats such as Augustus Pablo back in the 1970s, is more forceful. A single-note guitar skank lazily interlocks with slow, sensual trombone. Earl talks of Marley as a prophet, and compares him, rightly, to Elvis. Prince Malachi has a more contemporary UK reputation, and some jail time vaguely blamed on "Babylon". He takes the crowd's scattered shrieks as his due. "Africa Unite" and talk of Haile Selassie is mixed with aimless passages. It's hard to take him too seriously.
Little Roy is alone in being able to state casually: "Bob Marley would agree, mon. He was my friend also. Why should he be diminished?" A grizzled figure, he goes back to pre-reggae, rocksteady days. His high-stepping yet spiritual takes on "Kingston Rock", "Screw Face" and "Soul Shakedown Party" take us as close to Marley's long-gone Trenchtown as anyone. The crowd, mixed in age and race, leave happily enough for Marley, surely, not to mind tonight's amiable efforts.