As Packy Malley walks into the Rocky River Brewing Company, not far from his home, he greets a few of the bar's patrons with a friendly "hello" and "how are you." Plenty of people know Malley. The guy wears many hats. First and foremost, he works at Malley's Chocolates, the local business his family owns. He's also a DJ-for-hire who spins at weddings on the weekends. And for the past 20 years, he's been the man behind the Mid West Reggae Festival.
As we finally make our way to the bar's outdoor patio, where — no surprise —he's on a first-name basis with the patio bartender, he begins to tell the saga of this year's festival, which he had to downsize. For the past five years, the event has been held at Nelson Ledges, but this year Malley decided to bring the festival to downtown Cleveland's Whiskey Island. He originally planned to have three days at Whiskey Island but has now scaled back, canceling Friday's show and moving Sunday's concert to the Beachland Ballroom. Saturday's lineup has remained intact, and that show will still take place at Whiskey Island.
"I thought bringing it to downtown Cleveland was a great idea," he says. "But I was a little too ambitious in trying to do three days. It's an enormous task that a lot of people don't understand. There's no sponsors for this event — it's all out of my pocket and has been every year. It's me running up and down the street and taping signs to poles. I thought I would graduate from that, but I'm still doing the same stuff I was doing 21 years ago."
Originally inspired by the Robert Lockwood Blues Festival that took place at Meadowridge Farm in Huntsburg, Malley put on the first Mid West Reggae Festival at that same location. Though he only booked a mere three acts, the event drew 700 people. "At that time, there weren't any reggae festivals like that," says Malley, who became a reggae fan during his college years at Ohio State University in the '80s. "I had a reggae show at OSU in 1986 and really loved reggae music. I just wanted everyone to love reggae. And at that time, this was one of the hottest areas for reggae music. You had First Light from Cleveland, and you had Identity from Columbus. There were six or seven reggae bands that played out quite a bit. It was exciting stuff."
Malley says this year's lineup reflects a growing trend in reggae. Jamaica isn't producing the international stars that it once did, and the U.S. and the Caribbean are pumping out the newer acts. "There's been a lot of problems with Jamaican artists over the past several years," says Malley. "A lot of them are having visa problems, and there was some reliability issues. They were booking tours and not showing up. It's become a very haphazard business."
Plus, he continues, "there's a resurgence in American reggae bands like Rebelution and Soja, and some California bands like the Green. Young white kids are flocking to this stuff."
Malley had originally booked Soja for Friday night, but had to postpone their appearance when ticket sales weren't strong enough. Still, the lineup that remains intact features old-school roots singer Don Carlos headlining on Saturday night and the up-and-coming Caribbean band Midnite headlining Sunday night. And on Sunday from midnight to 2 a.m., the Columbus-based Roots High Power Soundsystem will throw a late-night dancehall party.
"Don Carlos has been a roots legend for three decades," says Malley. "He's the top of the heap. He hasn't played in Cleveland since I don't know when. I don't know if he's ever played here. In Hawaii, California, and Guam, he'll draw 20,000 people a show. He should be selling out the Q. And Midnite is, hands down, one of the most popular reggae bands in the world. They have a really slow dub style. People love them."
Despite this year's setbacks, Malley says he still plans to keep the festival going. "I've always been really proud of the fact that the Mid West Reggae Festival has always had one of the strongest lineups in the entire country," he says. "These are not just a bunch of local bands. They're Grammy-nominated bands that tour and put out a lot of product. I have pride in being a Cleveland guy and making this a good music town. I'm proud to have rocking reggae events. It's a giant risk. All it has to do is rain, and I'm really in trouble.
"I just pray to Jah that everything works out."