February in California means colder days, the Grammys, and the annual Ragga Muffins Bob Marley Reggae Festival that travels to Long Beach, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz. The event, organized by promoter Moss Jacobs and radio deejay Barbara Barabino, is in its 26th year, and although the two-day concert serves as a major gathering for West Coast reggae enthusiasts, many veteran supporters are grumbling about its increasingly uninspired line-ups.

Headliners such as England’s Steel Pulse and Pato Banton are omnipresent at American reggae festivals, and tour the West Coast with near Timex predictability. Record collectors and fans revere Jamaica’s Bunny Wailer and Junior Reid, but neither has released solid albums in decades, and their stage shows rely heavily on their careers’ hits. Many ardent reggae fans, critics, and radio personalities have commented to xlr8r.com that the showcases lack juicy draws and current chart-toppers like Sizzla, Capleton, Baby Cham, Vybz Kartel, Buju Banton, Beenie Man, and newer roots acts like Jah Mason, Lutan Fyah, Junior Kelly, Queen Ifrica, and Fantan Mojah.

One reason for the absence of such talent may be the ongoing frictions between certain Jamaican artists and gay and lesbian rights groups, which recently forced the near-cancellation of Buju Banton’s October 2005 appearance in the Bay Area. Another factor could be the skyrocketing cost of artist appearances in general, with some acts charging as much as $20,000 (USD) per show.

Some respite from the less-than-reggae crossover fare that includes Orange County’s Pepper, Nor Cal hip-hoper Wisdom, and the Hawaiian act Ooklah the Moc comes from authentic talents like Richie Spice, who, unlike the majority of other acts on the bill, has both a current Jamaican Top 30 single (“Brown Skin” on Don Corleon) and a highly anticipated new album (In The Streets To Africa on VP, out Feb 20). Other awaited performances include the late-’80s female deejay sensation Lady G, reggae’s “first family” Morgan Heritage (who are also in the charts with their single “Brooklyn and Jamaica” on Juice Boxx), and a rare visit from ‘’70s-‘’80s rub-a-dub crooner Leroy Smart.

Morgan Heritage, Steel Pulse, and the Twinkle Brothers are all slated to appear at the festivals.

The rest of the bill offers more questions than answers. For instance, will Kenyatta Hill, the son of recently departed Culture band leader Joseph Hill, be able to adequately fill his father’s shoes? What will the Gladiators sound like minus their signature vocalist Albert Griffiths? Will St. Croix’s Midnite deliver the sublime roots meditations they’re capable of, or an unpolished snooze fest? Finally, new roots singer Gyptian was recently denied entry to the U.S., so only Jah knows if the announced line-up will remain intact.

Fans who bus it over to Long Beach will be pleased by the city’s exclusive Marley Day appearance by U.K. roots/dub act the Twinkle Brothers, making those in the Bay Area and the seaside hamlet Santa Cruz scratch their heads and wonder why they didn’t buy a Long Beach ticket.

Many nations now celebrate Bob Marley’s birth with tributes and concerts. Perhaps the popularity of these gatherings will inspire Ragga Muffins to regain their edge as the best in the West.

Tomas Palermo

Show Info

Long Beach
Saturday, February 17
Lineup: Steel Pulse, Richie Spice, Pepper, Gyptian, Ce’Cile, Bushman, Lady G, Leroy Smart, Admiral Tibbett, Black Judah, Wisdom, and Luna Angel.

Sunday, Feburary 18
Lineup: Bunny Wailer, Junior Reid w/Andrew & Wada Blood, Morgan Heritage, Midnite, Pato Banton, Gladiators, Culture, Cultura Profetica, Ooklah the Moc, and Mr. Mutton.

Festival MCs: Amlak Tafari & Richie B

Santa Cruz
Thursday, February 22
Lineup: Steel Pulse, Eek-A-Mouse, Morgan Heritage, and Culture.

Friday, February 23
Lineup: Bunny Wailer, Midnite, Twinkle Brothers, Gladiators, Soul Majestic

San Francisco
Saturday, February 24
Bunny Wailer, Steel Pulse, Midnite, Eek-A-Mouse, Morgan Heritage, Gladiators, Cutlture, Luna Angel, and Wisdom.