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John Brown's Body: A new spin on an old scene


It’s one of the last shows of the year, and the crowd is eclectic to say the least. In Lupo’s at the Strand, people
are pressing against the stage, gossiping and talking and waiting impatiently for the show to start – and this is
only for the opening act. Clearly, this is no average warm-up group. As John Brown’s Body takes the stage, that
initial hypothesis is confirmed. Eight musicians and one sonic engineer weild their instruments like party horns
and begin blasting away. The show is seamless, and sounds studio-quality professional. These guys clearly
know their stuff. Throughout the crowd, people start winding their hips to the first notes of the first song, and it
seems to be a catching practice. Before the drums have been going for even a full minute, everyone in the
audience is dancing – including  fourteen-year-old punk rockers and a middle aged man who’s already had a
few too many. You have to wonder if the main act can possibly follow a group like this with a crowd that is already
begging for more.

At first listen, it might seem like John Brown’s Body is just another reggae band, albeit a good one. While their
sound is roots based enough to be related to Marley and the Wailers or even the Toots and Maytals, it could
never be called derivative. With a horn section to instill jealousy in any brass band and vocals that are easily as
strong as Michael Franti’s, JBB is definitely not a band to be dismissed. But despite their calypso rhythms and
obvious reggae influence, JBB has toured with artists in varying genres, including Virginia Coalition, Dave
Matthews Band and KRS-One – proof that John Brown’s Body cannot be so easily categorized.

“I think our music is 21st century music,” said band member Alex Beram. “It’s contemporary, it draws on our
obvious influences, but we have a sound that’s our own.”

Beram, who has played the Nyabingi drums and the Trombone with JBB since 2000, also said that the band
draws on non-reggae influences. “John Brown’s Body is not just a reggae band emulating 1970’s Jamaican

The history of JBB can be traced back to Tribulations, a group organized by Kevin Kinsella in Ithaca, NY, 1986.
Although attaining international success, Tribulations disbanded in 1993. Two years later, Kinsella re-organized
core members of Tribulations and formed John Brown’s Body in Boston. By 1996 JBB had released their first
All Time, on Kevin Kinsella’s own label, I-Town records. After signing to the Shanachie label in 1998 in
order to gain national distribution,
All Time was re-released and made Rolling Stone’s Top-ten Alternative chart.

Now, ten years after the bands inception, JBB is preparing to release their fifth studio album. Titled
, the album will be in stores in April on Easy Star Records. Despite changes in line-up and label, the
current lineup of JBB has been together for two years and is currently stable.

Still, few members of John Brown’s Body look like they belong in a reggae band, according to traditional
stereotypes. Members of the group hail mainly from New York and Massachusetts, and not from Jamaica. This
very isolation from the birth place of reggae, however, may have allowed JBB to develop their rich sound.

“We’re obviously influenced by the total history of Jamaican music, whether its ska, rock steady or reggae,”
Beram said. “But we’ve also been touched by the 50’s and 60’s of American Soul and R&B… Motown records
directly influenced a lot of vocal trios in Jamaica.

“As for Kevin (Kinsella), he’s very influenced by Johnny Cash and George Jones. I guess you could also throw in
Massive Attack.”

That very variety in the musical diet of Elliot Martin and Kinsella, the group’s primary songwriters, is inevitably
what allows JBB to remain fresh. It also helps that the members of JBB seem to really like each other, and have
common goals.

“We’re just eight musicians on stage who love to be together and to do what we’re doing. We’re very thankful,”
Beram said. “I think our goals, what we strive for and the success that we want for ourselves is shared by
everybody. I would hope for our music and our albums and our live shows to be a refuge from people’s daily
lives, just to create an atmosphere of comfort and enjoyment for people.”

That open minded attitude has led JBB to gain acceptance from a variety of musical groups, with few exceptions.

“We opened for Dave Matthews Band this summer and we were at the hotel after one of the shows,” Beram said.
“And we were having drinks with some of the guys… and we noticed Gene Simmons of Kiss having drinks in the
hotel lobby with some of his friends. Someone in the group, who shall remain nameless, decided we should
give Simmons a CD, but upon approaching him and saying hello he was immediately chastised and turned

But although Kiss may not have any interest, they’re the exceptions to the rule. With solid lyrics, uplifting vocals
and tight musical composition, JBB is a band that is definitely worth checking out – no matter what genre your
musical tastes may be rooted in.

John Brown’s Body will be appearing at The Roxy in Boston with Sound Tribe Sector Nine on February 23, 2005.
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