On one of the coldest nights of the year a near-capacity crowd showed up at Washington DC’s 930 Club to witness Jesse Royal‘s debut live performance in the US. The “Small Axe” performed a blistering set of singles from his popular mixtapes backed by the incredibly adept and well-rehearsed King Suns band.
Royal was in town to play the Bob Marley Birthday Bash on Friday, February 6, 2015 – the 70th anniversary of the birth of Bob Marley (February 6, 1945). Also on the bill were legendary “reggae ambassadors” Third World, who lost their beloved lead singer William “Bunny Rugs” Clarke last February. Virginia’s own Dub Architect served up the crowd with a heavy set of live dub mixes, including his own dub mixes of several of Bob Marley’s most beloved tunes.
Having witnessed Royal perform just two months ago at Wickie Wackie Live! on the beach overlooking Bull Bay, St. Thomas, JA – a strong but more subdued performance – I was impressed by the relentlessness with which he attacked the room at the 930 Club. The atmosphere and energy at Wickie Wackie was much more relaxed and intimate, even taking on a sort of ceremonial vibe when Royal took the stage with Rastafarian elder and legendary guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith, one reggae’s most beloved and universally respected musicians. The charismatic Royal truly delivers on-stage in a workman-like style reminiscent of the late, great Lucky Dube. His boundless energy, inspired vocal, and confident swagger endears him with the crowd wherever he performs.
In a space like the 930 Club, which was recently rated the “#1 big room in America” by Rolling Stone magazine, his show takes on an entirely different vibe – loud, high-energy, even unrelenting. Royal opened the set with the ballad “Hotter the Battle” from his Here Comes The Small Axe mixtape, a clear salute to Bob Marley and his timeless call to arms “The Heathen” from his 1977 album Exodus. Royal, who cut his teeth as an artist in Tuff Gong’s Ghetto Youths Crew, is a lifelong friend of Marley’s grandson Daniel Marley (son of Ziggy) and considers Bob’s sons Stephen and Damian as both father-figures as well as his greatest musical influences.
With the backing of the supremely talented and brutally heavy Kings Suns band, Royal had the crowd up and rocking for nearly an hour with popular tunes like “Feel Your Pain,” “This Morning,” “Wadada,” “Preying on the Weak,” and “Ganja Time.” He steadily builds tension in the room throughout his set before unleashing his smash hit “Modern Day Judas” to a crowd in full eruption, nearly setting the place ablaze. For such a young artist, his command of the stage and ability to work the crowd is extraordinary.
While the Kings Suns band has not received much international exposure they are well-known and respected within their native Jamaica. Wayne”Unga”Thompson (drums) and Jason Welsh (bass) are co-founders of the session band Further Notice, which evolved into the highly-regarded production outfit Notice Productions. Thompson and Welsh have worked with the likes of Damian and Stephen Marley and Serani. Kings Suns also features Wade Johnson on keys, Kenroy Mullings on rhythm guitar, and Elton” Elli B” Brown on lead guitar. These youths can play a brand of reggae that is as tight as it is heavy. “Unga” Thompson is without a doubt one of the finest reggae drummers on tour right now and someone who will surely have a significant role to play in shaping the future of reggae.
It is one thing to perform in front of adoring crowds in the comfort of your native home, however it is quite something different to put it on in front of a cynical American audience. There are fewer and fewer reggae artists who have the energy to keep a large room engaged for more than an hour. Steel Pulse, Michael Rose, Barrington Levy, Tarrus Riley, Sizzla, Anthony B. are just a few who really place a lot of emphasis on the live performance aspect of their craft. Add Jesse Royal to that short list. The “Small Axe” didn’t come to bow, he came to conquer – and that is exactly what he did.