It’s difficult to approach Bob Marley’s legacy with any sense of objectivity. While there’s no denying the infectious positivity of his music and the righteous aim of his social critique, the way it’s been co-opted by well-meaning but ultimately insufferable subcultures tends to cloud the judgment as thoroughly as a few good, strong hits of the kaya to which they’re inextricably linked. So how do we separate the nearly assassinated voice of the African Diaspora from the tie-dyed T-shirts, red, green and gold posters and branded rolling papers that are cornerstones of head shop couture?
Though it may not offer a direct answer to the question, Universal’s “Deluxe Edition” reissue program represents a step in the right direction. Digitally remastering Marley’s classic Tuff Gong LPs with an entire disc’s worth of bonus archival material, these reissues place a renewed focus on that which forged Marley’s legend in the first place—his records and live performances. Rastaman Vibration is the fourth and latest Marley project in that series, undertaken with the same attention to detail and strive for definitive stature as its predecessors. In fact, the only thing that escapes the Universal production team’s fine-toothed comb is the hessian sack-texture of the original LP’s cover, which (as the 1976 liner notes helpfully pointed out) could be used to clean the sacred ganja herb—one more point of contention for the pro-vinyl lobby, perhaps?
But it’s the sonic details that count the most, and the fantastic remastering job is immediately obvious from the opening seconds of “Positive Vibration”. The ten original Rastaman tracks sound as rich and warm as anything recorded today, with crisp snare shots and bass that literally spills across the floor of the listening space. What’s even more interesting though is Universal’s choice to ‘deluxify’ this particular record at such an early point in the series. Though it was the highest-charting album of Marley’s career, it doesn’t contain any of what are considered to be essential cuts (not one of the album tracks appeared on the original issue of the Legend best-of compilation). Even so, songs like “Johnny Was”, “Want More”, “War” and “Rat Race” are invaluable presences in the Marley canon that reflect his steadily increasing preoccupation with social justice and human rights.
It’s possible then that Rastaman Vibration had the most appealing related archival material occupying the vaults, even though you wouldn’t know it from the completist bait that rounds out the set’s first disc. The non-LP single “Jah Live” is a plausible and worthy inclusion (as is the second disc’s two-part “Smile Jamaica” single), but the alternate album mixes and relatively tame dub versions that flesh out the original LP material aren’t of much interest beyond a cursory first listen.
Fortunately, the second disc salvages the effort with a live Marley set from the Rastaman Vibration tour, recorded at The Roxy in Hollywood on May 24, 1976. It’s an amazing opportunity to hear a band aware of and confident in its powers, but still on the verge of international breakthrough—they present an 11-song mix of classics and cuts from the then-new album with a breezy mastery and at-ease assurance that’s all too rarely captured in live recordings. The magic is all in the nuances, particularly the I-Threes’ perfectly harmonized sigh of exasperation with the establishment on “Rebel Music” and “Family Man” Barrett’s throbbing extension of “Want More” for several minutes beyond its album length. But the prize of the entire set is the definitive version of “No Woman No Cry” (the only previously released track from this show, which first appeared on the Songs of Freedom box set), where Marley’s applies a heartrending vocal inflection to the word Trenchtown that literally brings a tear to the eye.
Though it’s virtually impossible not to think of these “Deluxe Edition” reissues as an ironic form of “Burnin’ & Lootin’” on the industry’s behalf (especially when Rastaman Vibration was remastered as a single disc only a year earlier), the inclusion of truly priceless material like the Roxy show lends at least some credence to Universal’s otherwise suspect motives. Though it may not absolve them from “Crazy Baldhead” status just yet, this is one deluxe-edition-remastered-with-bonus-tracks reissue that does the artist’s legacy incredible justice.