This is what I know about reggae: Bob Marley and the Universal Groove. Like many pasty American music fans, I was knocked out by Legend, the posthumous greatest-hits album that showcased Marley’s unerring sense of rhythm and spiritual lyricism.
But beyond the other Marley albums that Legend induced me to purchase (along with a bit of Peter Tosh and Burning Spear), reggae has largely remained an infrequent rest-stop in the journey of my musical aesthetic. After all, the cultural gap between the average Joe American and the original practitioners of reggae is a huge one (Marley himself sang about running “crazy baldheads [read: non-dread locked folk] out of the town”), and almost all live exposure to reggae in these parts comes in the form of bar bands hacking Marley standards to pieces in the effort to placate drunk frat boys shouting requests.
Enter John Brown’s Body, the Boston-based septet riding a wave of critical acclaim on the strength of their third album, This Day, and their growing reputation as a live band with serious chops. Ironically enough, JBB is comprised of mostly pasty Joe Americans, with frontman Kevin Kinsella hailing from the decidedly un-Caribbean hamlet of Ithaca, New York.
That a group of predominantly white guys has made inroads in the reggae scene is the end of irony when it comes to JBB, though. Everything about their approach to the music is honest and straightforward; in fact, JBB arose from the ashes of Tribulations, a Kinsella-led reggae band that was experiencing legitimate commercial success in the early ’90s before Kinsella left, firm in his belief that the music had strayed too far from its roots, had started, in his words, “to go sour.”
JBB’s lack of pretension begins with its name. John Brown was the famed abolitionist who raided Harper’s Ferry in 1859 to arm a slave insurrection, and the parallel of a white man taking risks for a non-white cause is a deliberate one for Kinsella. “We know that we cannot duplicate Caribbean roots music,” says Kinsella, “but when we draw back our bow, musically speaking, we are trying to hit the bulls-eye of roots music. We will never hit the exact center because of who we are, but we will get it as close as possible, and the arc of that arrow will be our own.”
Roots music, according to Kinsella, is dependent on two things. The first is an organic structure: “We do not use synthesizers or drum machines,” he says of the band’s songs, all of which are original. “We have a three-piece horn section and a Hammond B-3 [in addition to drums and guitar], and we build our songs in a guitar-voice-horns progression.”
The second hallmark of roots music is lyrical content. “In my mind, roots music is like the Bible being sung,” says Kinsella, who oozes a heavy, genuine spirituality even over the phone. “Roots music is not about guns and girls. It is steeped in scripture, particularly that of the Psalms of David. It is music of liberation, good news for the poor people.”
Good news, indeed, for Missoula’s poor and rich alike.
John Brown’s Body plays the Ritz next Thursday, Feb. 22 at 10 PM. $5 cover.