Giant Panda, The Simpkin Project, Haewa and Ocular Panther Groove at the Westcott Theater

An impressive crowd turned out for All Hallow’s Eve at the Westcott Theater October 30. Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad usually lures a sizable slew of reggae lovers, affording The Simpkin Project an opportunity to bask in the splendor of a well attended venue for the last stop of their east coast debut. Haewa and Ocular Panther appetized the quickly growing crowd with more abstract instrumental compositions.

Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad
Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad

Ocular Panther, a self proclaimed organic/electro band featuring Jason Gilly (bass), Collin Jones (guitar/synth/samples), and Michael Pantano (guitar), kicked the night off. Despite an optimistic concoction of notes culminating in a highly danceable jam beat, the crowd was not loose enough to dance in response. By the end of their short-lived set, the crowd had already grown to roughly seventy participants.

Rochester band Haewa followed, again utilizing Jones for his guitar work and vocals, plus Brendon Caroselli (drums/percussion), and Ben Chilbert (bass). For Caroselli’s second time playing with the band, he fit into their musical puzzle quite comfortably. Jones’ grungy fashionableness matched his Kurt Kobain-flavored vocals, adding some dimension to their  instrumental, at times face melting musical offerings.

The Simpkin Project marked the third band of the evening paying no mind to the looming holiday by sporting a discernible Halloween costume. Phil Simpkin (guitar/vocals), Shawn Taylor (B3 organ/vocals), Sergio Sandoval (percussion) and Jules Luna (guitar/vocals), were joined by Giant Panda members and long time fans of the band, Chris O’Brian (drums) and James Searl (bass). The Simpkin Project’s mild mannered, warm presence conjured that satisfying sensation of joy akin to tearing open a homemade cornbread muffin hot from the oven before slowly savoring each textured, spongy bite.

 Phil Simpkin
Phil Simpkin

Their mid-set song, “Everything You Want” professed a deep rooted love. Simpkin sang sweetly, “You are the shelter that protects me from the storm/The vindication for the reason I was born/I want to be everything you are to me/The center of my being.” Such enamor called to mind more than the simple indulgence of nibbling on a plain jane cornbread muffin. The slow-roasted, pan seared passion steaming out of this lyrical love plate was piled high with mashed potatoes, gravy and roast beef (ethically slaughtered of course).

Throughout their set, O’Brian and Searl happily mouthed the lyrics to many of the songs, fully immersed in the experience of playing alongside their musical heroes. Members of The Simpkin Project mirrored their gratitude, announcing towards the end of their performance, “This was a life changing experience, and what it taught us: we’ll be back.”

Giant Panda opened up with Searl soothingly offering the crowd, “This is a group meditation, please enjoy yourself,” following it up after the first song with “The first step to positivity is moving your body,” spoken like a true music yogi. Searl stood front and center, flanked by Dylan Savage (guitar/vocals) and Dan Keller (guitar/vocals), with Chris O’Brian (drums) and Tony Gallicchio (keys) rounding out their sound.

They covered a lot of ground, playing a range of older material from their 2006 debut album titled Slow Down, and mixing in a collection of everything since then including tracks off their May 2015 release Bright Days. Searl, Savage and Keller stood in a row, gatekeepers of reggae revolution, harmonizing before a crowd of mostly humans, mixed in with a few dancing pandas, princesses and superheroes, cuz ya know, Halloween.

As Giant Panda flowed into the marijuana-endorsing number “Mr.Cop,” the crowd dutifully sang along, to the delight of Searl and Savage who exchanged toothy grins as they strummed along. Before the next song, Keller divulged his entertainment from earlier in the day which consisted of flying a stunt kite. This anecdotal story was most certainly not followed by any references to how elevated the kite or any persons involved may or may not have been.

Known for effortlessly blending from one song to the next in a continuous swell of sound, Giant Panda transitioned from “Pockets” to “Healing,” followed by “Steady” and “Move” in a nonstop reggae rumble. Toward the end of the evening Simpkin reemerged as a guest vocalist. Sandoval added his percussive expertise to the high energy “O.K.” with Keller briefly adding some saxophone work to the lively tune. Leaving the audience buzzing with energy, Searl bid them farewell bellowing, “Peace, Panda and good night!”

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