Buju Banton lit up the sold-out crowd at the Theater at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night with his fleet dance moves and his bear-like growl over taut dancehall rhythms. But he wasn’t the only star of the show. The event was billed as a Buju and Friends showcase, and featured short opening sets by Daville, Son of Selassie, Lady Saw (who sang a heartfelt tribute to her “nookie”) and a young Kingston hopeful named Torch.
Most of the singers performed in front of the Garden’s big red curtain, with DJ accompaniment from a makeshift sound system, complete with a Mac laptop. Buju, by contrast, stromed the full stage, dressed in white and backed by the Shiloh Band. The infamous reggae star blazed across the stage with fancy footwork, while his booming voice carried to the back rows and beyond. The set began with a rushed mashup of his hits, starting with the “Wipe Out”=infused “Me and Oonu” and leading into a criss-cross of tunes from the album Too Bad and laced with a bunch of his most crowd-pleasing singles. Although the Theater is a seated venue, you can’t keep a reggae crowd down-the fans were all standing, singing along to each chorus and replication Buju’s moves. The superstar then broke into some more complete songs from ’Til Shiloh like “Untold Stories,” “Hills and Valleys” and “Not an Easy Road.” He rounded out the set with “My Woman Now”-always keeping the ladies in mind.
The biggest surprise of the evening was when Buju introduced Shabba Ranks onto the stage with a posse of Jamaican flag-wavers and an unsurpassed energy that was most definitely boosted by the crowd. At one point it seemed as if Shabba overshadowed the headliner, with his hits “Wicked In Bed” and “Trailer Load A Girls”-two tunes that even Banton was grooving to. Buju has sold out Madison Square Garden three times, and if that doesn’t magnify this star’s power, how about the fact that former New York Knick Patrick Ewing was in attendance with his family? It is definitely time for these bigger reggae acts to quit fooling around in the Theater and take their shot at the real MSG-because guys like Buju are absolutely ready to step into the arena.