Story by: Sheron Hamilton-Pearson (Photo Credit: Karlene Gordon from Case)
The highly anticipated Groovin in the Park 2017 is over and as I predicted on the morning of June 25, records were certainly broken. From the record crowd (I would put the figure at 30,000) to the record number of citations and proclamations given to the Ska Legends, Leroy Sibbles, Freddy McGregor, Ken Boothe U-Roy and Lloyd Parks. receipts of the Vendors; GITP management can sit back and definitely pat its collective back. There were also a number of firsts – from the Reggae Symphonic Orchestra, the first time an orchestra has performed at a Caribbean park event in New York, helmed by the great Ibo Cooper former member and founder of the legendary Third World group. The Orchestra blended uniquely with Lloyd Parks and his We The People Band who provided such a tight set for all the artists, it made one proud to be Caribbean as the level of talent on display was indeed phenomenal.
In a surprise move, Tarrus Riley was an early performer, as I approached the gates minutes past 3 o’clock, I could hear the voice of ‘Singy Singy’ ringing out even to the periphery of Roy Wilkins Park. Of course I was more than disappointed to learn that British pop star Estelle performed a surprise duet with the prolific performer, but was vindicated later when I was given a perfect photo op with her.
Kudos must be given for a pretty tight show, indeed, the line up was every impressive with something for everyone as evidenced by the crowd demograph, young, the young at heart and millenials packed the park and the anticipatory buzz was palpable as each group waited for their particular favorite performer.
In a tribute to the Ska legends of the 1960s, one of the jewels in the crown came from the performances of ‘Daddy’ U-Roy. Those who don’t know this man’s history do him a great disservice – advancing age has not taken away one iota of his skill as a ‘toaster’, ‘chanter’ or father of the genesis we know as rap. Those who follow reggae and its early history witnessed history as they sang along word for word to hits like “Wear you to the Ball”, “Wake the Town” and other classics. Another first – U-Roy performing at a open-air show in New York City. Ken Boothe was the next artist and the heat in the park started rising as this international reggae and British pop charting artist delivered a plethora of hits like; “Lady in the Starlight”, “Puppet on a String” opening his set with the little known but powerful “Is It Because I’m Black”. Whether his voice crackled with the emotion of performing before record crowds or the toll of the sun – that hardly diminished his performance. The big ship Captain Freddy McGregor was up next with an updated recording of the big ship riddim before he too delivered a fast paced set reprising his classic songs – the segment was then rounded out by the great Leroy Sibbles, former lead singer with one of the great harmony groups responsible for songs like “Book of Rules”, “Sea of Love” “Fatty Fatty”, and “To the Top” which he performed on Sunday. The pioneers were debonair in their tuxedo’s, as were the band members and orchestra ensemble. The Lennox Road Baptist gospel choir also performed with Ken Booth and Leroy Sibbles. Compered by Tommy Cowan, dapper in his tuxedo, he brought a level of class to the role of MC that was much appreciated. His wife, the evergreen Carlene Davis, also added a reworking of her classic ‘Stealing Love’ with words reflective of her conversion to Christianity.
The show moved into its next segment with the highly anticipated performance by reggae dancehall artist Busy Signal. His first New York performance in 8 years, the buzz – already at a high – climbed even higher when the dimunitive performer jumped out in his tailored animal print jacket and black pants and red sneakers. No sooner had he started his high energy set and put the crowd in a frenzy with his “Jamaica Love” anthem, than there seemed to be a problem and word came that he was being pulled from the stage! Busy was beyond frustrated as he reminded the organizers of his contractual obligations – you could see the man was willing and ready to perform, but unfortunately it was not to be. The mood of the crowd started turning ugly when Busy proclaimed that if he could not perform than R. Kelly (the closing act) would not perform either. As Busy was escorted from the stage and Ras Clem of Groovin Radio and partner in the GITP event came to placate the crowd who in another first – started booing him too! I saw patrons leaving in their droves – a clear indication that they were not happy at this turn of events. I was perplexed at the almost 30 minutes then spent in needless chatter and space fillers – why wasn’t Busy allowed to perform in that time?
What had been up to that point a wonderful event rapidly went south. The headline act R. Kelly, aka Kells or The Pied Piper made the mistake that many RnB artists performing to a predominately Caribbean crowd make – they start off performing newer material with which the crowd is unfamiliar. You could hear a pin drop – no one was responding. To his credit Kelly tried hard to win the crowd over – but to no avail. Eventually someone must have dropped a dime on him and he turned to his older material – that’s when the crowd started warming up. Word of advice – profane language at a family show is NEVER a good thing – I know the promoters would have warned Kelly – but then Kelly is known to have opposing characters – much like Marvin Gaye veering from righteous to downright nasty.