In a near two-hour set that underlined not only his surprising stamina after a lengthy layoff, but capacity to deliver from a wide-ranging catalogue of hits that showed off his immense quality as songwriter and performer, Banton proved that more than a year away from the public had not dulled his charismatic appeal.
He worshipped, chided, cajoled, praised and, above all, entertained in typical ‘Gargamel’ style, leaving the colourful Bayfront Park amphitheatre crowd, which turned out to witness Before The Dawn Concert with Buju Banton and Friends, lapping up his triumphant return.
The fact that Banton is scheduled to be in a United States court next month to learn his fate on drug charges hardly seemed to faze him. Backed by his band Shiloh, he was primed and ready once he hit the stage just after 10 p.m., knowing full well that not only the near-capacity audience, but people all over the world, had anxiously tuned in to see what he could muster.
“Why dem want to see Buju Banton cry? Is it because of Boom Bye Bye?” he asked once. “(Or because I’m) black and not shy?”
Banton also credited the audience with not being “stupid”, able to decide for themselves the merits of the case against him.
Yet it was up to him to reveal how it had affected him. The set rolled through Banton’s full gamut of emotions, including struggles with his legal predicament with laments like Destiny, Hills and Valleys and Not An Easy Road, chords of hope tied to his own faith, and timeless reflections in Untold Stories, often leading the audience in a singalong which at once shared his sorrow while making themselves happy.
Banton also returned to his dancehall best with hits like Mr Nine, Murderer and Champion, with snippets of Love Sponge, B…y Rider and Deportee sprinkled in. Driver A drew possibly the biggest crowd response of the night.
They never deserted Banton. Nor did his fellow artistes. Top onstage highlights featured lively duets. Banton with Marcia Griffiths was special. So, too, when the Gargamel matched Wayne Wonder, or when the Marley brothers Stephen and Junior Gong, chimed in with Duppy Conqueror. And even sadly without his usually brilliant accomplice Beres Hammond, who could not make it, everyone got the message at Before the Dawn: Buju Banton and Friends: Banton is in a desperate fight for his freedom. So they rallied to his side. Throughout the night, Banton repeatedly showed his own appreciation for the support.
“How happy am I to see you here tonight,” he said. “Thank you for your love and thank you for sticking to Buju Banton through these turbulent times. We’re all in this struggle together.”
Fellow artistes all fell in line. “Buju a our youth from day one,” said Freddie McGregor backstage. “Mi affi deh ya fi support Buju. Dat’s why wi deh yah.”
Some sought to counterpunch the battering Banton’s image has suffered during his legal ordeal and form a protective shield. “We have to give him strength,” said Everton Blender. “We have to unite. Somebody must help. Everybody can’t say ‘kill, kill, kill’. Somebody must say ‘save’.”
“A lot of love is here for Buju,” added Nadine Sutherland. “Buju is our own. There’s a lot of emotion. He’s our son, brother and friend.”
The pledges of McGregor, Sutherland and Blender were echoed by all performers who took the stage, and the line-up was impressive. Sean Paul, Shaggy, Tarrus Riley, DJ Khalid, Mykal Rose, Gyptian, Dean Fraser and Gramps Morgan pitched in to make Sunday a memorable night.