“Its Easter Sunday, let’s take ’em to Church!” These crowd-amping words from Sophistafunk’s Jack Brown resonated through a well-attended Westcott Theater on Sunday’s 4:20 concert, featuring local (Syracuse and Ithaca) favorites Root Shock, Sophistafunk, and John Brown’s Body. For many, Sunday’s gathering felt like a reunion of old friends as these bands amassed a sizable fan base of dedicated show-goers for a night of nostalgia, good vibes, and reliably awesome music from these time-honored veterans.
The night began with the soulful sounds of Root Shock, a newer (circa 2012) group with deep ties in the Syracuse roots music scene. Three of its members (Phil Grajko, Fahim Fain “Fa Fa”, Bill Eppel) have been gracing Syracuse’s stages on and off for nearly a decade with Afro-Cuban/roots/reggae/calypso group Akuma Roots. Root Shock brings a sweet, sometimes funky, sing-along soul sound to the droning chords and rhythm of roots rock reggae. The chorus’ were heartfelt and catchy and definitely highlighted the talents of the voice of Root Shock, Jessica Brown. This humble, dready soul child caught many an ear’s attention with her increasingly strong high range on songs like the classic Bill Withers tune, “Use Me.” The performance also featured visiting artist and former member of Root Shock, Phil Grajko (Morning Sun and the Essentials, Joy Telepathy Project) whose crisp and tasty guitar solos helped to round out the band’s sound and keep listeners listening. In short, Root Shock was an opener that everyone forgot was an opener.
Next, the crowd was swept up by the larger than life force that is Jack Brown and commanded to “Wil’ Out”- to dance, to celebrate, to get hyped and positive, no matter what excuse they needed. In Jack’s words, “Happy Easter, happy holidays, happy Spring Equinox, happy 4:20.” Jack’s rhymes are always thoughtful yet fun, and his positive themes encourage creativity, community and self-actualization. His animated persona, tall stature, and front of the stage presence demands crowd involvement. In breaks in sets, the audience was rallied around a ban on Hydrofracking, nostalgia for the Grassroots Music Festival and Sterling Stage, and love for the Westcott Nation. Jack knows how to work a crowd, but what is the quintessential frontman without a killer rhythm section? Nothing. Think Robert Plant without John Paul Jones and John Bonham, or Roger Daltry without Keith Moon… needless to say, Adam Gold (pianos and synth) and Emmanuel “E-Man” Washington (drums) held down the funk…hard. Gold has an uncanny ability to provide a full-bodied, deep bass line while simultaneously rocking the crowd with a rhythmic melody or sending them into a sophisticated space-haze with chorus-laden organ sound. E-man’s rhythms are tight, loud, and immaculately locked-in, making him and Gold one inseparable funk machine. For an extra kick, a very talented guest trombonist from NYC was brought onstage and delivered virtuosic solos, ecstatic hype-power, and some legit hip hop dance moves. Sophistafunk tends to give the headliners a run for their money and this 4:20 party was no exception.
John Brown’s Body kept the night grooving with their dubby, rich, sometimes almost hymnal sound. Jungle green and cool blue stage lights and smoke machines poured ambiance over the now moody, mesmerized crowd as JBB showcased their large repertoire of “Future Roots” music. John Brown’s Body has been touring Ithaca and Syracuse (and worldwide) for almost two decades now, have produced ten studio albums, and have gone through numerous band member changes. This band has a sound that has evolved and has some serious staying power and mass appeal. The formula, according to this humble listener: 1) Thuddy, five-string deep bass lines that aren’t afraid to walk about the neck and dig that groove super-deep. 2) Guitar hooks that play closely off of these bass lines, hit lots of rhythmic counter-melodies throughout the song, and utilize cool effects. 3) Soulful, pure-toned vocals with lots of sustained notes that uplift listeners and suggest some sort of spiritual chanting or hymn. 4) A trifecta of harmonious, ecstatic, and yet perfectly balanced horns (sax, trombone, trumpet). Their interplay with Elliot Martin’s vocals provided the perfect injection of complexity and raw roots energy to the overall sound. John Brown’s Body brought listeners through their many phases, with newer, dubbier sounds like the etheric, “Plantation” off of Kings and Queens, to the “rootsier” classic, “Follow in the Shadow,” from the 2005 album, Pressure Points. Listeners from all eras appeared to stay right with JBB throughout their set. After an encore, the audience was left tired, but filled with warm hearts and good vibrations. Happy 4:20 indeed.