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Reggae pioneer Burning Spear returns to Boston on his post-retirement, not-a-tour tour

Burning Spear is shown performing last month in San Francisco.@leeabelphotography

The past two years have been tough ones for fans of classic reggae. Pioneers Bunny Wailer, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Toots Hibbert, and U-Roy all passed away, leaving few actively performing artists from the golden era of Jamaican music. So it came as especially welcome news that Winston Rodney, better known as Burning Spear, is mounting his first full tour in years, including a stop Friday at the House of Blues.

Spear’s recordings such as “Slavery Days” and “Marcus Garvey” set the standard for spiritual and socially conscious reggae. Once one of the music’s most indefatigable road warriors, Spear was a frequent Boston visitor performing marathon concerts, from his debut at Paul’s Mall in 1976 through a series of packed shows at what was then the Roxy (now the Royale) in the ‘90s and early 2000s.


Then he seemed to disappear. There was no follow-up to the 2008 Grammy-winning album “Jah Is Real,” and the number of concerts he performed each year trickled to single digits before ending entirely after 2016.

“I did not take a pause,” Spear explains when asked about the hiatus. “There comes a time after a while where you have to walk away, and I did that over the past few years. I decided to retire, so I did retire.”

“A few people have been calling, asking for a show here and there,” he says, speaking while traveling to a Maryland performance. “I decided to do a few shows for the fans who were always there for I-man over the past years. Why not play a little music for them again?”

There are artists half Spear’s age who would call the 23-date, eight-country “Fan Appreciation Tour” a pretty full outing, but he insists that “it’s not like Burning Spear touring again.”

“I won’t be out on tour next year. I’m too old for that,” he says with a laugh. “I’ll be 78 come next March 1. I can use my discretion.”


Of the first few dates last month, Spear reports that “everything went well. Sometimes I have to catch myself, knowing I’m not a young guy like before,” he laughs. “I have to be careful, but everything is good so far, and everyone is feeling good knowing they got to see Spear again.”

Burning Spear performs last month in San Francisco.@leeabelphotography

Majestic horn arrangements were a trademark of the original roots reggae sound, but over the years many reggae artists adopted synthesized horn parts when they recorded or went on the road. Not Spear. “Anything I do, it’s live, it’s real, and we have a real horn section,” he says. Even after his hiatus, he “didn’t have to put together no new band. These are musicians who we’ve been working with for a long time. I just get in touch and say the time is right.”

The first single from a long-in-the works new album came out last year. Meanwhile, the Black history lessons found in Spear’s lyrics are as timely as ever. “Marcus Garvey’s words come to pass,” sang Spear in 1975 of the Jamaican-born Pan-Africanist whose philosophy is at the heart of Rastafarianism and a frequent theme in Spear’s music.

“The time is right to have a Marcus Garvey public holiday and school, and for them to clean up his record,” says Spear, referring to efforts to expunge a 1920s mail fraud conviction prosecuted at the behest of a young J. Edgar Hoover.


In the 1980 track “Christopher Columbus” Spear sang that the explorer was a “damn blasted liar” for claiming to discover lands like Jamaica. Asked if he was ahead of the current trend of Columbus Days being replaced by Indigenous Peoples Days, Spear responds, “Who knows? As an artist I write the song, and I sing the song, and I know it created a big impact, for no one was thinking a song like that could be written and sung.”

One tenet of Garveyism is self-reliance, something Spear put into his business practices by starting his own label and making his management and business a family affair. While the original Burning Spear recordings were on storied labels like Studio One and Island, Spear says “early on I was just working for other people in the business, and things weren’t happening the way it should. Right after I became independent and started administering my own business, things really started to happen.” He also had a long affiliation with the now-defunct Cambridge-based Heartbeat label.

When COVID vaccines first became available, there were questions about whether Rastafarian resistance to Western medicine would result in reggae artists going unvaccinated. But Spear had no qualms about taking his shots. “I don’t care about criticism. You have to think for yourself. I just stick to my program and I do what is best for me to be safe. If you’re going to listen to what people say, you ain’t going no place. I listened to me and took my vaccine, and if there’s a few more to take I will be taking them too!”



At House of Blues, Aug. 5 at 8 p.m. Tickets $55-$75. www.houseofblues.com/boston