By Levi Stein
Check out our photo gallery from the show.
Ithaca/Boston-based roots reggae band John Brown’s Body returned to the Westcott Theater Thursday, Sept. 27 for an energized performance in front of a packed house. It was their first show in Syracuse since last February. Syracuse was the first stop for John Brown’s Body on a brief Central New York tour with shows in Ithaca on Friday and Rochester on Saturday.
The band has certainly solidified their status in the reggae world with a progressive genre they call “future roots” music. Their sound is a mixture of “roots, reggae, and rock” according to drummer and original member Tom Benedetti, who was nice enough to sit down with me before the show. He also cited the reflection of many different backgrounds of music that resonates through their own music.
Opening the show for John Brown’s Body was a Rochester-based reggae group called Thunder Body. Thunder Body is a diverse six-piece band with a rock and roots reggae sound. The band stems from two former members of Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, Matt O’Brian (vocals and drums) and Rachel Orke (keys).
On their Reverb Nation page, Thunder Body describes their unique fusion sound as “medicine music.” It combines an element of gospel, hip-hop, and unorthodox “science” sounds. This science sound is the responsibility of band member Colonel Parmesan. Throughout the show, he played no traditional instruments, but rather peculiar devices like the Theremin and other various electronic effects.
The outcome of this combination made for some incredible tunes. Instead of having the drum kit neatly arranged way back on the stage, drummer O’Brian was upfront and center, wailing on some incredible falsetto jams.
More similar to other reggae groups, the band carried highly charged political lyrics (hatred is toxic/anger is poison) with an underlying message of love and prosperity. The prominent use of delay effect on the vocals and guitar was also very characteristic of more modern roots sounds.
Perhaps the coolest part of their 13 song set list was when Orke, a Syracuse native, left the pedestal of her keyboard and picked up her melodica. The melodica, also known as a blow organ, was popular in 70’s reggae/dub music. The crowd went wild whenever she would perform a solo on it.
If you have any doubts about their credibility, think again. They have opened up for other big-name acts like The Wailers. At one point in their set, they pulled out JBB horn players Scott Flynn and Sam Dechenne to jam on a track.
After their set, I met featured percussionist “Jocko.” Jocko was John Brown’s sound engineer for nearly ten years. He owns his own recording studio More Sound in downtown Syracuse, recording genres ranging from death metal to reggae. He recently started playing some shows with Thunder Body. He humorously added that he plays every instrument, but mediocrely.
Like most other reggae artists I’ve met, after Thunder Body packed up their equipment, there was no “Hollywooding” on their part. They came out into the crowd to hangout with some of their fans and see JBB perform.
John Brown’s Body was up next. Now if you’re wondering about the name of the band, it comes from the famous 19th century abolitionist. As Tom told me, “Kevin named the band after a really important historical figure. We believe by any means necessary, you should do the right thing and that’s what John Brown did.”
In anticipation of their full-length album to be released in January, JBB recently completed a 7-track EP entitled JBB in Dub. Building off their live and impromptu instrumental dub breakdowns, the album features virtually no vocals.
“We wanted to do release a preview EP before our full-length album,” said Tom.
Now I’m a firm believer that instrumental tracks usually sound better, especially when performed by talented musicians. I was not proven wrong. When JBB played “Wellington”, the fourth track off their new EP, I was simply mesmerized by the precision and timing of their instrumentation.
JBB began their set with “Ameliorate” a popular live track featuring a high tempo horn section. Their second track “Invite” continued with the same momentum. Lead singer Elliott Martin swayed and skanked (a popular ska dance) around the front of the stage, dreads flying side-to-side.
The energy and desire to play on was made particularly apparent to me when Jocko’s mother told me that the bass player for JBB, Nate, had accidently cut his finger open with a razorblade earlier that day. I then noticed his ring and pinky fingers taped together. My respect him suddenly increased immensely. He didn’t even seem phased by this most definite vexation.
The positive energy these guys deliver is unreal. During “Gonna Do” a funky little hip-hop breakdown occurred. My night was complete however, mid-set when they played their hit “The Gold.” This track appeared on their 2008 album Amplify, but was re-mixed by artist Dubmatix for their 2009 re-release, aptly titled Re-Amplify. “The Gold” features the horn section playing the normal syncopated guitar and keyboard rhythms. I evidently had to put down my pen and paper to dance around with the rest of the audience.
The show featured two encores: “Hands” and “Soul Aware”. While some of the crowd had dissipated, many patrons were still dancing and singing along until the end (sometime around 1 a.m.).
I’ve seen many reggae bands in the last few years and I’m simply blown away by John Brown’s Body. Their energy, their stage presence, their musicianship, their positivity, and downright ability to deliver a full concert experience is undeniable remarkable. This is truly one of those groups you must get a chance to go see.