Scientists, put down your test tubes. If there was ever any doubt that musical talent is genetic, Stephen Marley laid it to rest during his Friday night show at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel.
Burdened and blessed with a famous surname, Marley faced a Las Vegas crowd split between his own fans and those in attendance simply to see his last name perform.
Incredibly, both left satisfied.
During his 1-hour, 45-minute set, Marley played almost all the tracks on Mind Control, his Grammy Award-winning debut solo album released March 2007, but interspersed with his new brand of reggae were his father’s classics.
The familiar territory began with “Get Up, Stand Up,” an easy crowd pleaser, though both Marley and his band seemed to coast through it on autopilot. It wasn’t until halfway through his set that he fully unleashed his talents on one of his father’s songs, a passionate rendition of “Buffalo Soldier” that had the audience belting out the words in time with the energetic Marley.
At 36, Marley is Bob’s second son and the same age as Bob was when he died. His voice has a high-pitched raspy quality that sounds eerily similar to his father’s. Listening to him with eyes closed, I could almost imagine it was Bob holding the mic, singing the hallowed refrain of “Buffalo Soldier” as weed and cigarette smoke billowed into the spotlight’s path.
While his takes on inherited tunes would be enough to fill an entire show pleasantly enough, the true highlight of the evening was watching Marley step into his own songs.
Bouncing from political pleas (“Chase Dem”) to half-whispered lullabies (“Hey Baby”), Marley embodied a range of emotion that many artists can only hope to express, the smile spread across his face obvious evidence of the joy he takes in making music.
Marley’s reggae is of a different breed, one that incorporates elements of hip-hop, soul, and dancehall with a strong reggae current to produce a totally modern sound. Live, the potent combination of his thoughtful lyrics and practiced production skills are all the more obvious. On Ray Charles’ cover “Lonely Avenue” Marley shared an aching tale of regret with a soulful R&B swing. On “You’re Gonna Leave” he took over a chorus sampled on the album from Martina Topley Bird’s “Sandpaper Kisses,” and although his voice lacked her invasive, haunting cadence, an anguished guitar solo matched his pitch so perfectly it seemed the instrument was suffering as much as the man.
And Marley wasn’t all heartbreak and heavy headedness. Like his father and siblings, many of Marley’s songs speak to such issues as crooked politicians, citizens who’ve forgotten how to think for themselves and of course, the persecution of marijuana smokers.
“Let me out. Let me out; I’m an angry lion,” Marley cried out urgently during “Iron Bars,” a song with an addictive hip-hop beat inspired by the hours he spent in a Florida jail for marijuana possession in 2002. “Who’s gonna feed my kid?” he sang, laughing as he leaned over his young son, Jeremiah, who twirled with his eyes stuck on the flag dancing above his head.
If he’s anything like his father, I’ll find myself at a Jeremiah Marley concert somewhere down the road. After all, he’s got genetics on his side and the last name to prove it.