The first thing most people say when I talk to them about John Brown's Body is, "What the heck does 'John Brown's Body' mean?" So, let me start with some background to the name. John Brown was a white radical abolitionist who lived from 1800 to 1859. He was hanged for murder, treason and inciting a slave riot for his raid on Harper's Ferry, WV. He knew that there would be have to be bloodshed in order to rid America of slavery and was willing to give his life for the cause. In his final statement before being hanged he said, "Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life, for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children, and with the blood of millions in this Slave country, whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments -- I say let it be done." John Brown's Body arose as a Civil War song that takes its melody from the Battle Hymn of the Republic and was sung by both black and white Union army men. It was sung as a salute to someone willing to sacrifice everything to abolish slavery.
Over 125 years later the band John Brown's Body got their start in Ithaca, New York. As an interracial band with a message of unity and freedom from suffering, they soon became a staple of the local music scene. Now residing mostly in Boston, they have grown into a national act, touring the country extensively over the past few years. From the beginning their goal has been to stay true to the roots-rock-reggae sound and message of love and harmony while not forgetting that it is no longer 1973. Their sound today is as fresh as the Wailers were then. Tight, tasty horn arrangements combined with the heavy rhythm section and well crafted lyrics and melodies transport the listener into a space where smiles are the norm and groove is the key.
JBB is fronted by singer/songwriter/guitarist Kevin Kinsella, and fully loaded with the talents of Elliot Martin on vocals, Tommy Benedetti on drums, David "Solid" Gould on bass, Nate Silas Richardson on Hammond B3, clavinet and guitar, Lee Hamilton on sax and vocals, Chris Welter on trumpet, vocals and organ, and Alex Beram on trombone and bingy drum. And like any true dub/roots band, they are augmented by the fine sound engineering/alchemy skills of Johsua Driscoll.
I joined up with the band on February 24th for their 2-night stay in Santa Cruz and was immediately reminded how tough it is for bands on the road. The previous night JBB played in Portland, Oregon, a twelve-hour drive from Santa Cruz. After finishing the Portland gig at 2am, they had slept a mere few hours before hitting the road to make it to Santa Cruz in time for their opening spot for Ky-Mani Marley. The stress of that long haul was readily visible on their faces before the show, but the music quickly lifted their spirits just as it did those in the audience. Santa Cruz loves reggae and also loves to dance, so there was plenty of crowd energy. The tight roots music and sweet pungent smell of fine California herb filled Palookaville and the troubles of the world seemed to vanish with the smoke and music.
The following evening JBB was to play their own gig at Henfling's Firehouse Tavern in Ben Lomond, up in the lush Santa Cruz Mountains. Interestingly, John Brown's last living son spent the latter part of his life in Ben Lomond so there was extra meaning to the show. However, once again the band faced a travel obstacle. Highway 9, one of only a few roads into the mountains, was closed which required an alternate route to Henflings. As the band prepared to leave someone noticed a leak under the van. Further inspection revealed a broken brake line, completely disabling the band's van. This presented a major problem: How to get their trailer full of gear and all ten of them 10 miles into the mountains. Thankfully a Henflings staff member offered to tow the gear then we put together a convoy of vehicles to transport the band. The gig went on late but it was well worth the wait. The small confines of Henflings made it feel more like a private family party than a concert and we were all treated to two powerful sets of superbly performed roots music. Even the skeptical local bikers who frequent Henflings were up dancing to the infectious grooves. That is a testament to the power of John Brown's Body.
Fortunately the band had the next day off and was able to fix the van and get back on the road. With more long drives ahead they were off to Eugene, then back to California to traverse the entire state before the extended drive back east. Anyone who has done a tour, whether as a fan or a band member, knows how tough it is to drive the West. It takes a deep commitment to spend extended periods of time in confined spaces with the same people every day, and after so many years the members of John Brown's Body seem to love playing and traveling together.
If you would like to catch John Brown's Body on the road they will be touring the Midwest and East through April. Out West your next chance will be at the International Festival in Houston, TX on April 28th. They will also be a part of this year's High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, CA July 5-8. Also, check out their most recent CD This Day. You can also find their other CDs from their record label, I-Town Records or at your local music store.
JamBase Santa Cruz Correspondent
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