Review: Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad stirs it up at the Putnam Den

Posted by Dale Obbie

Whether you are a fan of heavy-hitting reggae, homegrown acoustic folk music, or better yet, a fan of music in general, March 22 was a great night to spend at the Putnam Den. Playing for a den full of their dedicated fans, Rochester, NY's psychedelic-roots-reggae band Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad (GPGDS) kept the energy flowing for a full three hours of music.

Celebrating the Jan. release of their acoustic-Americana album, "Country," as well as the upcoming April 10th release of their latest reggae album, "In These Times," GPGDS played two sets - one acoustic and one electric - of entirely new music.

After paying homage to "the great Robert Nesta Marley," they kicked things off with countrified versions of "This Train" and "Dew Drops" from Marley's classic "Acoustic Medley." Singing "this train is bound for glory," all five members of the band blended their voices in harmony while multi-instrumentalist Aaron Lipp added a bluesy aesthetic with his steel guitar and harmonica.

Lipp continued juggling instruments during "Country" - the title track of their new album - closing the tune with a lap steel guitar solo. "That's one we wrote on the roads of this great nation," explained bassist and vocalist James Searl. "Country" owes its name to more than the folksy sound of its Americana music - both the title and the music evoke images of the American countryside rolling past the band's van, where they wrote the album. "Playing our acoustic guitars in the van is really what made the feel of the porch-rockin' sound happen," says Searl.

The acoustic set reached its highpoint when the band played a spot-on cover of the Grateful Dead's "New Speedway Boogie," which got all of the tie-dyed fans in the audience dancing up front. In true Grateful Dead fashion, they slowed the tempo down, ending with a spacey breakdown before launching into an upbeat bluegrass version of the fan favorite "Burkina Faso."

According to Searl, GPGDS approaches folk music and roots reggae from the same direction at shows: "There is a lot of commonality between these different styles we play, mostly because it's us playing it...Similar energy and similar song forms. When it goes to space, it goes to space." The acoustic set definitely did not lack any space voyages: every song ended with a highflying jam, and at the end of "New Speedway Boogie," guitarist Dylan Savage sent ripples through the ambiance by channeling his acoustic guitar through a wah-wah pedal.

When the reggae set began, Searl's pulsating bassline brought the crowd in from their smoke break and up to the front of the stage. Lipp had set down his guitar and began spreading a thick layer of organ jabs on top of the bass, while guitarists Dylan Savage and Dan Keller exchanged percussive plucking.

Several songs into the second set they really dropped the bomb, departing from the otherwise lyrically driven set to play some heavy downbeat dub. Searl had on his bass face, locking into drummer Chris O'Brian's groove to lay the foundation of the jam. Lipp's warbling organ jabs syncopated with Searl's knee-bending bass notes and O'Brian's echoing percussion to create a web of tightly knit rhythms.

As Searl explains, this tapestry of sounds is not unique to the live experience, but essential to "In These Times" as a whole: "It is definitely a great album to sit and LISTEN to and let it take you around. The imagery from the songs, the fatness of the analog instruments we use, the amount of dub that comes in and out, all amounts to a pretty reflective listen. I find myself reflecting, probably because I feel like we bled into this record, but I think others will agree."

The new songs from "In These Times" were both sonically and emotionally varied. It wasn't just "feel-good" reggae, but a mixture of both the cheerful with the darker and more pensive sides of their songwriting. For Searl, "In These Times" is "a walk around the past six years of living life in the developed world." It is a vivid illustration of both its beauty and its injustice. "Pockets," which they played at the show, laments the economic division that has led to the Occupy Wall Street Movement and exemplifies their reggae at its most righteous.

GPGDS did not end the night on a low note. At around 1:30 a.m., right when it seemed as though the show was about to end, they launched into "All Night Music," another sunshiny tune off of "In These Times." The song's melody was simple but infectious: "Play all night music, jam until the sun comes up."

And jam they did, going on to play some of their mainstays. During "Seasons Change" Searl sang "I feel you comin' when the rhythm gets slow," while the band decelerated and fiddled with the array of effects pedals strewn across the stage - or, as he would put it, "went to space."

Then, reentering orbit, they played "OK," an energetic Afrobeat song ?? la Fela Kuti. As a pleasant surprise, Keller (truly channeling the Kuti) picked up a saxophone and played a wailing solo before the band segued seamlessly into "Change You," the final song of the night and the catchiest from "In These Times."

All in all, the show was fantastic, and although the crowd thinned out as it got late, GPGDS gave it their all, delivering a consistently enthusiastic and impressive performance.

For more information about Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, visit their site at

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