Bob Marley was in fine voice for the last concert of his life. From all accounts he was in some serious pain, too — the cancer in his toe was spreading, he’d collapsed during two recent jogs, and nobody was certain whether the concert at Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theatre would actually happen. But it happened, and you don’t hear any of that pain on Live Forever, the recent double-disc release of Marley and the Wailers’ final show on September 23, 1980. Instead, Marley’s presence and authority come through more clearly than on his previous official live albums.
This is partly thanks to the recording’s mix, most of it from the Stanley’s soundboard. (The last two songs, “Work” and “Get Up Stand Up”, come from a tinnier source.) Comparing the vocals on Live Forever with 1975’s Live! feels like putting on a new pair of glasses. Marley and his female backup singers the I Threes are front and center throughout, cutting through the bass and the crowd noise that had previously threatened to bury them. Live! still sounds fine, and in many ways, it remains a more succinct and exciting way to experience this great band, but the vocals on Live Forever are a minor revelation.
Marley sings with the command of a devoted performer, but his command serves a larger purpose. On the threatening “Crazy Baldhead” he’s growling and passionate, loose but spot-on. He never veers far from the song-as-written; it is, after all, the handiwork of Jah. But he’s not above throwing in an exquisite scat solo just to taunt any baldheads who think Jah music is too simple.
And for those who’d complain that Marley sings everything the same way — well, that’s sort of the point. He delivers the tender “No Woman No Cry” with the same stern deliberation he gives the militant rhetoric in “War”. “No Woman” is maybe a little more legato, but the briskly enunciated “cornmeal porridge” line and the chanted “everything is gonna be alright” belong to the same worldview as H.I.M. Haile Selassie’s powerful “War” speech. You buy Marley’s messages of hope because they don’t turn him all lovey-dovey. He remains a clear-eyed revolutionary, a powerful dude you don’t wanna mess with even when his lyrics and band are giving you a musical hug.
Marley’s straightforward messages gain depth through juxtaposition in the setlist. “Everywhere is war” is one thing, but it becomes something else butted up against “we don’t need no trouble; what we need is love”. And that medley becomes something else again as a prelude to “Zimbabwe”, a call for armed revolution in the African nation. Six months before this show, the revolutionary leader Robert Mugabe had been elected prime minister of Zimbabwe, and the song sounds like a thoughtful celebration. 30 years later, Mugabe has a reputation for incompetence and brutality, but Marley’s songs sound as true as ever. The lesson for you kids: write songs, protest, but don’t go into politics. Seriously, have you looked at the news lately? EVERYWHERE is war.
The Wailers give Marley tight support throughout. They don’t stray too far from the studio arrangements, but there are unique touches, like Junior Marvin’s wide-ranging guitar solo in “Heathen” and the picked-up pace of “Jammin’”. Alvin Seeco Patterson provides some lively conga solos, most notably in “Redemption Song”, where he and drummer Carlton Barrett are Marley’s only accompanists for a verse.
Whether you need to hear this stuff probably depends on how devoted a disciple you are. Though the songs sound good, the arrangements lack the diversity of the studio albums, and the whole show is a lot to take in at once. This is especially evident in “Could You Be Loved”, which is drab compared to the hit single that was sweeping the nation at the time. “Loved” also features some painfully out-of-tune vocals from the I Threes. But that’s near the end of the show, when they were probably tired. The rest of Live Forever emphasizes how integral they were to the Wailers’ sound. Their harmonies with Marley are clear and luxurious, and they’ll make you wish Bob was still around to sing nostalgia tours with them.