John Brown’s Body Brings the Barn to its feet

Photo by Cameron Yong
Photo by Cameron Yong

I’ve never listened to reggae before, and I’ve never known about the underground scene. The closest I’ve come to listening to the genre has been “I Shot the Sheriff” or “Don’t Worry (Be Happy).” I didn’t know what to expect at a reggae show, but as Tommy Benedetti, drummer for John Brown’s Body, told me, “Reggae’s sounds are rich and the melodies are deep, which is why I love playing it so much.” And after listening to lead singer Elliott Martin’s melodic voice, I completely agreed with him.

John Brown’s Body is only doing a small tour for their new album, “Kings and Queens,” their first release in four years. “We’re only doing a California tour for now,” he said. “We started in San Francisco and going down to San Diego before heading back to the East Coast.” They’re touring with their opener, Stick Figure, “an amazing group of guys to tour and play with.”

The audience was an extremely different turnout than any other Barn show I’ve attended. First off, I felt like I was the only person who actually went to UCR and was 21 and under. Everyone else looked like they were in their mid 20s-30s and had just come back from their local dive bar. Men had hair as long as the women –– some with dreadlocks and some without –– and wore shirts and hats decked with an image of a marijuana leaf.

Stick Figure opened up the show to cheers and applause from the audience. The lights changed from red to blue as smoke emerged, making it feel like a dance club. Stick Figure had a throbbing bassline and an extremely energetic keyboardist, Kevin Bong. He rocked his body back and forth during the whole set, causing much commotion in front of the stage as a small mosh pit formed, which I did not expect at a reggae show.

However, the crowd’s reactions seemed to change once John Brown’s Body came on stage. Like Stick Figure, loud applause and cheers greeted the band, but when Martin started singing, he closed his eyes and let the music flow through him; his voice was filled with so much soul that the audience stopped what they were doing and just listened. When I asked about how different it was performing for a college crowd, Benedetti said, “You never know what to expect with a college crowd. We play for anybody anywhere. We love what we do.”

John Brown’s Body consists of a guitarist, a keyboardist, a bassist, a trumpeter, a saxophonist and a drummer. When I first heard how many different instruments there were, I was skeptical about how they were going to sound live. I thought the different sounds would clash and just create noise, but they ended up being a great combination. “Step Inside,” Benedetti’s favorite song to perform live, was a great example of this. There were brass solos with a bass playing at the same time, and then a keyboard suddenly came in out of nowhere. The tempo was upbeat with a hint of an electronic tone from the keyboard. It sounds strange on paper, but the diverse range of instruments successfully worked together to create an eclectic sound.

All of these great combinations are thanks to Martin. Benedetti gave him a lot of the credit, saying, “Elliot [Martin] does the large share of the writing, musically and lyrically. We put the spin on where it needs to be exactly.” He said their influences are all over the charts, ranging from Sly Robbie and King Tubby to Radiohead.

The Radiohead vibe was clear in their last song, “The Gold”. In fact, it didn’t even sound like a reggae song. The brass instruments were only used, for the most part, in the introduction. For the rest of the song, electronic sounds and tones were emphasized by the trumpet in the background. The song was a great way to end the show because it felt different compared to the rest of the set, all of which evoked the vibe of a breezy, tropical island.

I’ve been to a lot of different shows in my time, but I have never been as surprised and fascinated as I was at John Brown’s Body’s show. The plethora of instruments worked extremely well and created a great beat that was easy to dance to. As a drunken man yelled out to me during that night, “How the heck are you not dancing to this?!”

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