Toots and the Maytals | Blackheath Hall, South London

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The Independent Culture

The original Maytals, Toots' barber-shop-singing, gospel-influenced vocal partners who blazed a trail through Sixties and Seventies Jamaican music, departed over 20 years ago. But the indomitable Frederick "Toots" Hibbert - a pugnacious, pint-sized man full of vigorous self-belief and infectious energy - is still going strong.

The original Maytals, Toots' barber-shop-singing, gospel-influenced vocal partners who blazed a trail through Sixties and Seventies Jamaican music, departed over 20 years ago. But the indomitable Frederick "Toots" Hibbert - a pugnacious, pint-sized man full of vigorous self-belief and infectious energy - is still going strong.

Bounding on to the stage in a red, green and yellow suit, an outfit which would look comical on anyone else yet became his status as a home-grown Jamaican legend and international ambassador, he immediately breaks through the band's ponderous and inflexible introduction. With his trademark raw, lusty growl cutting through the murk, Toots invokes the "fire, fire burning in my soul" and the touch paper is lit.

Now well into his fifth decade, the mercurial Mister T was a backwoods son of a preacher man when he went to Kingston in the early Sixties. There he and his cohorts recorded a string of revivalist inflected ska and rock steady classics with Lee Perry, Coxsone Dodd and Prince Buster. In 1966 he spent two years in jail on a charge of marijuana possession but still managed to herald a new genre with the epochal "Do The Reggay" upon his release.

As a recording force, Hibbert's fortunes have ebbed since the masterful "Toots in Memphis" in 1988 but for the blistering first half of this two-hour show he is a force of nature, transforming the grand 19th-century concert hall into a sweat-soaked, dance-crazed cross between a blues party and a Pentecostal meeting house. His direct access to a potent gospel/soul heritage is the recurring motif, the sheer waves of pleasure set off by the call-and-response routines with the audience and backing singers, invariably climaxing in a triple-speed, old-time race to the finish.

The strategy is simple but totally irresistible, and never supersedes the subtleties in such self-penned landmarks as "Pressure Drop", nor the deep yearning of "Time Tough", nor the eruptive clarion call of "Monkey Man". His determined versatility shines through in a set where rejuvenated country standards (John Denver's "Country Roads") and soulful euphoria side with rude boy anthems and rasta prophecy.

But, ironically, it is when he declares "I Never Get Weary" that the relentlessly breathless approach begins to wear. The last half of the show - enlivened by the jailbird reminiscence of "54-56 That's My Number" - is mostly an incorrigible showman's display of unnecessary stamina and endless ad-libs, with the band's limitations becoming more apparent.

Sometimes less really is more, but after 40 years pouring his heart out that logic is unlikely to impress the voracious, unquenchable Toots.

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