COURTESY JOHN BROWN'S BODY
The reggae band from New York is touring the isles this weekend.
New York reggae band skanks to a unique beat
John Brown's Body is the greatest reggae band you've never heard of. No, they aren't Rastafarians. Jamaica isn't home -- upstate New York is. And most of the eight band members are white guys you'd never expect to see at a reggae show, let alone performing on stage.
John Brown's Body Hawaii Tour
10 p.m. Thursday: Boardriders Bar and Grill, 201A Hamakua Drive, Kailua
5 p.m. Friday: Borders Ward Centre and 10 p.m. at Don Ho's Island Grill, Aloha Tower Marketplace
Also: Saturday on Maui and Sunday on the Big Island
Tickets: $10 to $15 for Don Ho's concert; free for Borders appearance
Call: 261-4600 or 528-0807
But if you close your eyes and listen to the riddims they've released over the past decade, it's easy to forget those little details and just skank along. And unlike most Jawaiian offerings here, all of John Brown's Body's music is original material.
"It's very much American reggae," said Alex Beram, who plays trombone and serves as band manager.
"There's nothing contrived about what we're doing. We're not trying to emulate anyone, and over the years the proof has come out and we've earned respect ... for having our own identity."
THE ROOTS of John Brown's Body trace back to Ithaca, N.Y., where Kevin Kinsella and Elliot Martin attended high school together.
Kinsella, Martin and Tommy Benedetti were all in a group named Tribulations, which moved to Boston and enjoyed modest success until breaking up in 1994. John Brown's Body, named after a 19th century abolitionist active in the years before the Civil War, formed a year later.
"Coming from Tribulations, which had more of a rock sound, I think Kevin wanted to get back to more of a (roots reggae) sound," Beram said. "A lot of the early '60s and '70s Jamaican music based itself off the Motown sound, and that was the big thing for Kevin: the vocal harmony and the composition."
JBB's first three albums, "All Time," "Among Them" and "This Day," are considered the roots trilogy, a calling card that establishes the band's credibility. The release of "Spirits Around Us" in 2002 and "Pressure Points" earlier this year show a band trying to grow, while maintaining a connection to the past.
"It's a move forward, but not detached from where we were," said Beram. "We have a pretty identifiable sound, so we wanted to evolve it but not lose track of where we came from."
THE BIGGEST change on "Pressure Points" comes from a shift in songwriting duties.
Kinsella had always been the primary songwriter, although each member of the group was welcome to share new ideas. Starting with three songs on "Spirits All Around Us," Martin began to increase his input. When it came time to record "Pressure Points," he was on a roll.
"Elliot was really in a period where he was writing a lot ... feeling the inspiration," Beram explained. "It was really hitting with us, feeling like he was pushing the next evolution of the band. The eight of us are a collective, but Elliot stepped up to the plate with a bunch of material that was really progressive."
The decision to use digital sampling and production effects was another new step, creating a sound that some fans weren't prepared for.
"There were some of our fans who really caught on in the early years and were really attached to that sound," said Beram. "It just took a little bit of time to sink in ... and a lot of those people are now digging it. We certainly have a lot of crossover appeal with our sound. But we're very much true to our art."
This weekend's tour takes the band to Oahu, Maui and the Big Island, and will pair them with heavyweights of the local scene. They play with Ooklah the Moc Friday at Don Ho's and Marty Dread on Maui on Saturday. Support from those acts have made it easier for John Brown's Body to gain acceptance here.
"We've actually been friends with Ooklah for many, many years," Beram said. "They were really helpful in putting this trip together. I really hope we can make (Hawaii) a regular stop."