Photo by Steve Rood

For an 18th year, Reggae Night at the Hollywood Bowl maintained its established tradition of pairing classic icons of the one-drop universe with its rising youth, under the July night sky, though not without a near-miss.  Once among the leading artists of the island sound, now celebrating their 46th year as a group, Third World served as the icon, in the opening slot.  Following their hour-long set was to be newcomers Kabaka Pyramid, with now-veteran reggae supernova Damian ‘Jr. Gong’ Marley headlining and closing the weekend evening’s annual celebration.

Third World, indeed, played the role of legendary representative, not only for reggae but for talent originating on the island of Jamaica.  Whether making the keytar somehow cool, or reliving their peak of commercial success with “96 Degrees in the Shade,” they were as sharp and as soulful as in their ‘70s heyday.  Mystifying the sold-out Bowl with a nod to Bob Marley- an instrumental version of “Redemption Song” on cello- or with an homage to Pavarotti- yes, Pavarotti- or swirling The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” into their final entry, Third World’s place in reggae lore only grew in depth and stature.

As for Kabaka Pyramid, the mere fact that they appeared at all ended up nothing short of improbable.  Traveling 20 hours from a gig the previous night in Europe, the reggae upstarts stepped out of their taxi and directly onstage, borrowing Third World’s gear, and triumphantly raising their arms over their heads for making it, a little late, for an abbreviated 15-minute set.  In a five-song medley, they blended new originals with a throwback toss to Tenor Saw’s “Ring the Alarm.”  If for nothing else than the effort it took for the band to make the date, Kabaka Pyramid earned an ovation; one encouraged by the show’s emcee, Garth Trinidad, from sponsoring radio station KCRW, that carried over to acknowledge their crackerjack cabbie who shuttled them from tarmac to venue.

At the top of the bill, Marley’s 90-minute run started ominously with a vivid video montage, then into the insightful and provocative “Nail Pon Cross,” from his excellent, and latest, album, Stony Hill.  Marley stomped and swaggered, smiled and sauntered under a billowing Lion of Judah flag waved over his head as he touted California’s policies toward marijuana before “Medication.”  He was cool and positive and dressed casually sharp in a white button-down and blue blazer.  His dreads nearly touched the ground, as his gravely intonations, rapid-fire reggaeton delivery, and lyrics of purpose and conscience zipped past like tracer rounds through the thickening Hollywood air.

Jr. delved into Tuff Gong’s catalog, as well, dropping his father’s “Is This Love” and Could You Be Loved” before an encore of his own trademark hits.  With sing-along help from the capacity crowd, reaching high up into edges of the Bowl, Marley dipped back to his 2005 breakout for “Road to Zion,” and, on a finale to a rippling and emotive performance, that record’s infectious title track, “Welcome to Jamrock.”  Displaying reggae’s rich diversity and longevity, this trio of island ambassadors brought yet another night of cultural and musical enlightenment to a summer Sunday night in Southern California.“