Reggae in the Desert offers festival of good vibrations and island flavors

Las Vegas may be a long way from tropical cool - especially on a Saturday afternoon in June.

Except, perhaps, at the Clark County Government Center, where Saturday's 11th annual Reggae in the Desert will transform the center's amphitheater into a musical oasis of good vibrations.

Just ask Las Vegan Jordan Rosenthal, the drummer for one of Saturday's featured acts, Fortunate Youth.

He's played at three previous Reggae in the Desert festivals - and when he's not playing Saturday, he'll be grooving to the music along with the audience.

"For Las Vegas, it's by far the best reggae show of the year," Rosenthal says. "And it's one of the best all-day festivals of the year."

In part, Rosenthal attributes that to the amphitheater setting, which he describes as "very laid-back."

Laid-back, of course, but energetically so, because "reggae music brings out great energy," Rosenthal notes. "Everyone's dancing."

Attendees will have plenty of chances to dance Saturday at the all-day-and-into-the-night festival, which begins at noon and winds down about 11 hours later.

Blankets are permitted for lawn seating; attendees also may bring one unopened, factory-sealed water bottle per person.

Food and beverages will be available for purchase at the Caribbean Islands Vendor Village, which also features reggae- and island-related items.

Ky-Mani Marley (son of reggae legend Bob Marley), who played the 2009 festival, returns as festival headliner, blending his Jamaican roots with musical influences that range from hip-hop to rock, blues to world music.

"He's really raw, energetic, in your face," Rosenthal says of Marley's performing style.

Overall, "I'm really, really excited about this show," Rosenthal says. "It's the best lineup they've ever had."

He bases that on personal experience.

He and his Fortunate Youth bandmates have toured with reggae rockers Tribal Seeds. And they recently played a festival at California's Yosemite National Park with Grammy nominee Pato Banton and his band, The Now Generation.

For his part, Banton has previously played with Marley and fellow Reggae in the Desert performers Third World, who've been playing since the '70s Jamaican club scene, and Pacific reggae artist Fiji, who blends hip-hop, R&B and jazz into his island-flavored music.

It's a mutual appreciation society for musicians on the reggae circuit, Banton says.

"The more you travel around and meet" fellow players, "the more you respect their musicianship," says Banton, who headlined 2003's Reggae in the Desert.

That musicianship can range from traditional reggae (as performed by Jamaica's Israel Vibrations, who've been performing their "roots reggae" for more than two decades) to the reggae/island blend of J Boog , a Southern California-to-Hawaii transplant.

In his international travels, "I've seen every single culture" respond to reggae, Banton says. "It's adaptable and versatile. There are so many different genres, anyone can really take it and make it their own."

Which is what happened to Banton, who hails from Birmingham, England.

He got his start in the music business at 8, when he started helping his stepfather, a reggae DJ from Jamaica, rig his sound system.

From there, Banton started to DJ himself, then took the microphone, discovering that audiences "liked my style."

Initially, "I thought to imitate the Jamaican artists" he heard, Banton acknowledges. "But when I started to do my own lyrics, with my own way of doing it," audiences responded.

Now, "they call me Mr. Positivity," Banton says, citing his avoidance of "doom and gloom." Whether the theme is "political, social or spiritual," Banton says, his message remains "stay positive - and never give up."

Such positivity is central to reggae's enduring appeal, says drummer Rosenthal, who gravitated to reggae and ska in contrast to his older brother, a punk rock guitarist.

Reggae songs generally focus on "the troubles we all deal with," Rosenthal observes, noting that "we're all the same - and we share the same struggles every day."

The drummer directly experienced a bit of that think-positive vibe last year, after he had split with his previous band and told the members of Fortunate Youth to get in touch "if you ever need a drummer."

As luck would have it, their drummer had quit, five days before a 50-day tour, clearing the way for Rosenthal to join the band and hit the road.

"I'm very lucky and blessed," he says, noting that the Southern California-based Fortunate Youth will be touring again this summer - a tour that winds up Aug. 11 at the Silverton.

For now, however, Reggae in the Desert remains the focus for the artists involved.

"It's a really nice, laid-back groove," Banton says of the festival experience.

Some audiences are more laid-back than others, however.

"I find audiences differ, depending on the acts in the festival," Banton says. "You may find an audience that's not a rootsy crowd - or they're a rowdy crowd. It depends on what artists are bringing to the plate."

As for his own appeal, "it's a combination of both," Banton says with a laugh. "If they're rootsy, we get them a bit rowdy."

Contact reporter Carol Cling at or 702-383-0272.