The progressive reggae of John Brown’s Body at Belly Up
The Aspen Times
If You Go …
What: John Brown’s Body
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Sunday, Dec. 6, 10 p.m.
How much: $15
Tickets: Belly Up box office; http://www.bellyupaspen.com
The members of John Brown’s Body have taken to calling the band’s progressive reggae sound “Future Roots Music.”
What does that mean?
Well, on the nine-man band’s most recent record, 2013’s “Kings and Queens” (a dub remix version of which was released earlier this year), it means that the song “Invitation” opens with a bombastic, scratching bassline — more Rage Against the Machine than standard reggae — which segues into a more traditional arragement but manages to fuse the snarling aesthetics of hard rock with a familiar reggae vibe in the Jamaican tradition. On “Searchlight,” it means there’s a swampy, propulsive funk matching the reggae drum-and-bass foundation and flourishes of horns. On “Starver,” you hear it in the meandering guitar with a distinct space-rock tenor.
It’s adventurous stuff, and it’s evidence of a band that’s still resisting predictability after two decades of making forward-leaning reggae records.
“The sound is growing,” drummer Tommy Benedetti said from home in Boston. “That’s really satisfying, to be able to say that after all these years.”
Hard touring since its formation in Boston in the mid-1990s, John Brown’s Body has long been a Colorado mainstay — the current tour includes stops in Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins after playing Belly Up on Sunday. The Aspen regulars typically draw a feverish local crowd that draws from beyond the hard-core mountain-town reggae-heads. The band was most recently here in August and has been playing Aspen since some of its earliest tours, when John Brown’s Body played the old Howling Wolf.
“The crowd in Aspen always brings it — it’s one of my favorite places in the state to play,” Benedetti said.
The band’s enduring success has progressed alongside the growth of a U.S. dub and reggae scene, as bands like Sublime brought a mass stateside audience to an American spin on the genre. In the early days of John Brown’s Body, the band members were mentored by some of the living legends out of Jamaica.
“We got to open for the real established Jamaican acts that were still touring at that time — it was really trial by fire. You don’t pull anything over on the crowds going to see Burning Spear and Jimmy Cliff. We needed to be on our game every night. And we learned from touring with those bands how to be a professional act and be tight musically — that’s how we got our roots.”
While passing muster with discerning traditional reggae audiences with original songs, John Brown’s Body quickly put its own fingerprints on the form, becoming one of the first bands to incorporate electronic dance music into its compositions and fusing elements of ska, funk and rock over a drum-and-bass foundation, overlaid with frontman Elliot Martin’s reflective poetry. The style influenced a new generation of reggae bands. Meanwhile, the growth of a more pop-oriented American reggae sound has given Benedetti pause.
“I’m glad that a lot more people seem to be getting turned on to the music,” he said. “I just hope people realize that comes from Jamaican music and look back. It goes deeper than Sublime.”
Benedetti said the band’s current sets pull from its past four studio records — stretching back to 2002’s “Spirits All Around Us” — along with some new material off of a forthcoming album that’s due out in the first half of next year.
“There will be a few new things,” Benedetti said. “And we’re digging back into the catalog to bring back some tunes we haven’t played in a bit.”
After taking three to four years between new releases for most of their career, Benedetti says that fans can expect a more prolific output from here out.
“We’re trying to push the frequency, keep the vibes fresh and have fun with it,” he said.