Review: 'Roots, Dub, Reggae' - John Brown's Body at Putnam Den

Posted by Dale Obbie

Last Thursday night, Boston-based reggae band John Brown's Body performed a dub-heavy set at Putnam Den. The New Hampshire-based band Roots of Creation opened for them, drawing a dreadlocked crowd for a fun start to the Halloween weekend.

John Brown's Body's music often receives the label "contemporary roots reggae," and with a sound reminiscent of '70s-era reggae legends such as Burning Spear and Lee Perry, the band definitely earn the "roots" distinction. But there's more to the band than that. The band members play just as much dub — an instrumental, effect-laden, drum and bass-driven twist on reggae — as they do traditional reggae. What's more, they play dub at live shows, despite the fact that the style lends itself more to studio recordings than to the live setting.

The show on Thursday was no exception. They opened with a slow-burning dub song full of echoing horn bursts and wah-wahing rhythm guitar scratches. With his eyes closed, vocalist Elliott Martin shook a tambourine, nodding his head while his waist-length dreads swung back and forth in rhythm to the slack drumbeat and the Den-shaking bass line.

During the sunshiny tune "Be At Peace," trombone player Scott Flynn and keyboardist Matt Goodwin joined Martin in a beautiful vocal harmony that reverberated throughout the bar and into the street. The three voices urged the audience to "be at peace and perceive deeper love," ending with a warning to not "put your life in the hands of those who terrorize by taking life away from the song that we sing everyday."

The energetic "Zion Triad" snapped the audience members out of their trance and got them dancing with a drum and bass breakdown. Bassist Nate Edgar played deep-reaching riddims over the echoing snare drum, ending his groove with fast-fingered flourishes. Meanwhile, the smiling horn section danced in unison while Goodwin sipped a beer. The lively song ended with jazzy horn solos alternating between Flynn, trumpet player Sam Dechenne and saxophonist Drew Sayers.

The heavy-hitting righteousness of "Speak of the Devil" turned Martin from a happy-go-lucky reggae singer into a heated political spokesman, red-faced and shouting for the audience to "speak only truth and let your words be clear to defeat all those who seek to rule with fire and fear." Pounding his clavinet, Goodwin synchronized with Edgar, playing a thunderous bass line under the high-reaching horn shrieks.

After a couple of heady dub songs, the band slid into the mellow "Blazing Love," which ended with a smooth trumpet solo from Dechenne. In response to explosive applause from the crowd of dedicated fans, the band played two encores, ending the night with "The Gold" from its 2008 album "Amplify."

It was without a doubt one of this year's best Putnam Den shows. Despite the fact that the bar wasn't entirely full of people, John Brown's Body nevertheless delivered its authentic reggae in full force, evidently enjoying the experience as much as the enthusiastic audience.

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