While Saturday October 10 was not their first rodeo, (or fashion show, as some say) the reggae revolutionaries of John Brown’s Body brought their musical stampede to the Westcott Theater. Replete with trumpet, trombone and saxophone, their rich sound echoed through the theater as frontman Elliot Martin freely swayed with the music.
JBB’s horn section was the pinnacle of an evening of varied instrumentation from the three acts that graced the stage. One man band Alex Gideon opened first, relying solely on his guitar, looping vocals and sound effects he created live. The Syracuse native was surrounded by a sea of unmanned instruments assembled for the ensuing artists. The gadget dichotomy accentuated his minimalist setup, which could have lent him more credibility had his routine not been as lackluster.
Gideon played a few catchy covers including Joe Cocker’s “Feelin Alright” and Sublime’s ever-popular “Doin’ Time.” To these he injected his own beat boxing to the mix. And to his credit, Gideon generally selected songs well suited for his funky soul singing style, to which he could accentuate with just the right amount of gruffness when needed. Alas, despite a slew of somewhat catchy tunes, including his original track, “Cuse Town,” Gideon’s performance maintained a relatively stagnant energy, with beat boxing and looped sounds that carried minimal variation from one another.
Local folk/reggae group Grayak followed, performing to a room fairly well stocked with humans. Considering the band is fairly new to the scene, the crowd of roughly 200 was an encouraging sight. They played a mix of songs from their 2014 album Made of Light and their new album set to be released February 2016. After the first few songs, lead singer and guitarist Phil Grajko took a moment to graciously acknowledge, “I’ve been listening to JBB for years and it’s an honor to be playing with them.”
Grajko usually relies on sister Hannah Grajko for backing vocals, but amidst her absence, Jessica Brown of Root SHOCK, a reggae band which Phil Grajko is also a part of, filled the backup vocalist position. Having been performing together in Root SHOCK for several years, Grajko and Brown’s seasoned harmonizing capabilities definitely did justice to the Grayak tunes. Brendan Gosson switching between fiddle and mandolin, Blake Propst on upright bass and Tyler Dattmore on drums, completed the quintet.
Gosson frequently switched between his two stringed sweethearts, the mandolin providing much more of a staccato sound. During “Maya” a track from Made of Light, Grajko’s guitar work midway through the song had an almost Spanish-style appeal to it. The crowd, which wasn’t too shy to dance, really got moving for “Lovely Girl,” an uptempo number about a girl worth spending time with. Gosson brandished his fiddle once again for “Made of Light,” their title track and last song of the evening.
John Brown’s Body took over, with the horns providing a dramatic opening for “Step Inside,” the first song off their 2013 album Kings and Queens. It is a fitting song to open a set, as the lyrics urge, “Come one and all got to make the dancehall tight,” seeking to usher in participants to partake in the music and merriment. JBB transitioned to some heavier material, playing songs with themes more related to their namesake John Brown, a nineteenth century militaristic abolitionist who saw armed rebellion as the best means to ending slavery. While respecting Brown’s valiant efforts, their performance of “Empty Hands” provided a powerful peace offering to listeners, questioning the need for war, exclaiming “So look into the palm of my hand, no weapons/ No frustration or need for confrontation.”
“Plantation” followed, though it actually comes directly before “Empty Hands” on Kings and Queens. It recalls the trials of working on a plantation and living a life in servitude. The last two lines, “With a guitar we’ve a song warning you/ Give them all a way home.” It acts as a call for freedom, and perhaps the guitar serves as a nonviolent alternative to a weapon as a means of provoking change. Surging forward with messages of inspiration, Tommy Benedetti (drums), Dan Africano (bass), Jay Spaker (guitar), Jon “JP” Petronzio (keys), Scott Flynn/Alex Asher (trombone), Drew Sayers (saxophone), and Sam Dechenne (trumpet) rounded out the battalion. It was a battle well fought by all on stage that evening.