The backstory of The Capitol Session is nothing shy of a perfectly arduous predicate to its literal Hollywood ending. As The Wailers’ interim percussionist and mentor, Joe Higgs, tells it in the liner notes, the Jamaican reggae sextet, on its first American tour, was dressed too oddly, played too slowly, and was too indecipherable to continue as an opener for Sly and the Family Stone in the fall of 1973. The band made it through a handful of October shows, then was dismissed and dumped on a Las Vegas street corner.
From there, The Wailers went to San Francisco, recording a session at KSAN radio and playing a hastily arranged pair of shows at the Matrix. Then, invited by producer and early supporter, Denny Cordell, the six migrated to Los Angeles for a session Cordell filmed and recorded at Capitol Records. The audio from the Capitol session survived through the decades as a coveted bootleg (and comes as a polished-up, accompanying CD to the DVD), but the film remained essentially unseen until nearly 50 years later; here restored to its proper glory.
The 90-minute reel is still quite raw- with a few false starts, limited camera angles, and minimal lighting- but is as revealing of The Wailers’ personality and performance in ‘73 as anything like it in existence. The downtime between songs, in particular, offers a trove of memorable and revealing moments: denim-clad Bob Marley is ragged and cool; as likely to play the pensive captain as to flash a disarming grin. A stoic Peter Tosh splits time between rolling a (mighty) joint on a nyabinghi drum and setting-up said drum for “Rastaman Chant.” Higgs, subbing in for Bunny Wailer, is unaffected behind dark sunglasses, alternating between percussion and harmony vocals. The Barrett brothers- Carly on drums; Family Man on bass- are locked as a rhythm duo like no other. Two sides of the same coin: Family Man sports a military helmet; Carly, jaunty in a sleeveless tri-color sweater. On keyboards, ‘Wya’ Lindo, the newest Wailer, carries a rookie’s motivation and humility.
As for the Wailers’ performance, it’s what matters most, and mirrors the sextet’s sartorial selections: ragged and cool; pensive and disarming; harmonious and percussive; stoic and hazy; militant and colorful; ambitious and unassuming. And though credited to Bob Marley and the Wailers, the set is more appropriately understood as a Wailers session, covering a dozen tracks from the group’s two debut Island LPs. In ’73, Marley, though the main contributing songwriter and vocalist, was still an ensemble player. (Tosh and Bunny would leave before Bob Marley and The Wailers debuted with Natty Dread in 1974).
As such, The Capitol Session is a very rare and significant piece of Wailers history- these Jamaican rude boys, fittingly, at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, on the precipice of fame – and an extraordinary musical treasure.