For a festival that is entering its 31st year, it would be understandable for organizers to rest on their laurels a bit; especially after the 30th Anniversary iteration last year, when Lauren Hill opened up the festival. Instead, the TD Jazz Festival organizing team have once again compiled a murderers row of talented musicians and artists to play this year’s festival. In 2015 the incomparable Sharon Jones and her backing band The Dap Kings kicked off the fest, needless to say the bar for the opening night shows that follow those two ladies (Jones and Hill) is fairly high. 2017’s festival kicked off with a potent duo of Reggae artists in Jesse Royal and Jo Mersa Marley (yes, of that lineage), so once again organizers have brought some marquee talent to town to kick off the fest.
For the next 3 hours, Halifax was transported to the warm sunny shores of Jamaica. Jesse Royal and his talented band (including guitarist Nico Groskopf) got things off on the right foot with a highly engaging and energetic set. Now, that’s not to say it was a vapid set by any means; in actuality it was quite the opposite, as Royal used the platform he was afforded to speak out on policy corruption in his home country. It was a set that was warm, summery, and at times touched on those chill days when there’s nothing to do other than to kick back and fire up a finely rolled joint (see the catchy tune “Finally”). It was a great set that got people up and dancing, and primed the Haligoon crowd for the grandson of legendary Rastafarian singer (and activist) Bob Marley.
One can only imagine what it must be like to live under a massive shadow such as the one cast by Bob Marley, especially when you are following in his footsteps like many of your relatives before you. From the moment Jo Mersa hit the stage, it’s clear that the apple did not fall far from the tree, and with some herbal supplement, it wouldn’t be hard to confuse the two men. The other major difficulty is overcoming the fact that a fraction of the audience are there to hear you cover some of those well known Marley tunes, instead of your own body of work. Let’s first get the moose off of the table: yes, there were Grandpa Bob’s tunes which were covered (“One Love”, and “You Could Be Loved”) that sounded decent, but Jo Mersa Marley’s material is more than strong enough to stand on its own (see “Sunshine”).
It was a great night in Halifax, there was a warm breeze blowing through the concert site as both Royal and Marley performed. As it was nearing 11pm, the crowd began to thin out when Jesse Royal joined Jo Mersa on stage. The positivity emanating was similar to the classic Care Bear stare: the moment their music is pointed in your direction, there is no choice but to submit and give yourself over to the warmth and love. As this was only night one, I can’t wait to see what else the Festival has to offer.