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Spirits All Around Us: The Impact of John Brown’s Body

Guest post by John Powell

High school had been like a spiritual awakening as my musical tastes expanded: Belle and Sebastian, Phish, Green Day, and Atmosphere. Genres of all kinds revolved through my Discman daily. I was a senior, playing guitar a ton and writing songs prolifically. Music had become very, very important to my well-being and as a hobby. I loved learning everything I could about a band. I’d recently discovered reggae through Culture after a visit to the Virgin Islands. I had just gotten myself Bob Marley’s Legend, Peter Tosh’s Toughest, and Freeman, an obscure Burning Spear album. I was thirsting for this sound.

My best friend from childhood, Ben, had been attending the University of Vermont for about a semester. He invited me to crash with him on campus for the night. A classic New England January winter spread across the green mountains, something very different from the Jamaican hills the musicians I listened to called home.

After spending the previous evening with some friends munching on frozen Snickers bars, and living a stereotypical UVM night, I’d crashed on Ben’s small, grubby futon. Those dorm rooms were perpetually overheated, so even early in the morning Ben cracked a window as he asked, “You’re into reggae? I should play you something.”

He opened his three-disc changer stereo to pop in a CD. Sunlight burst through the large window and I felt invincible. Tommy Benedetti’s drum fill roared through the speakers, introducing me to “Feel” off of Spirits All Around Us. I just looked at Ben. He smiled at me: “They’re called John Brown’s Body.”

In that moment I surrendered to reggae music. The heavy low end, the one drop, and the lyrics… Oh boy, the lyrics. And while Spirits is most certainly a reggae album, and certainly roots, there was something different about it when compared to the originators I’d been listening to. Here was a group of musicians stretching the roots rules as far as they could go. It was new, and I was fascinated.

Ben burned me a copy of the album and I took it home, learning every part of it over the next month. I sought out other contemporary reggae bands, but all I could find were Sublime, 311, and ska bands like Less Than Jake. These were good, but they didn’t have the beauty that came with JBB. Ben told me he had another album of theirs and burned me a copy of Among Them.

I wore that CD-R out replaying “Singers and Players.” What was it that gripped me?

Well, like many of us who discover reggae, I find it hard to explain the spiritual, instinctual draw I have to the genre. For me, Bob Marley does a great job summing up this feeling in an old interview that can be found in the documentary Marley. He’s asked when did he become a Rasta and replies that he’s always been a Rasta, but that it had taken time for him to find a way of being that matched how he had always felt. The new, progressive roots reggae of JBB is the same for me.

Soon I entered college and heard about a band called Spiritual Rez. They had an upbeat ska vibe, and craving more reggae I checked them out. This led me to Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, and to Euforquestra and Tubby Love―I realized I was literally growing up with the contemporary reggae scene. Together, we were learning what reggae could do for the new millennium.

John Brown’s Body – From Pressure Points to Fireflies

Living outside New York City, I had access to tons of live music, and while I continued to listen to lots of styles, reggae continued to blow my mind. I went to see John Brown’s Body and saw Elliot Martin downstairs at the Bowery Ballroom.

“Will you play ‘Feel’?” I asked him.

“Kevin’s no longer singing with us,” he said. “That’s one of his songs.”

I was confused. Kevin was the lead vocalist. How could they be playing without him? But then Elliot took center stage. Nate Edgar had just joined on bass, Mike Keenan was doing weird stuff on his guitar, and Matt Goodwin was behind the keys. I thought, “Where’s Nate Richardson?”

The line-up had abruptly shifted. I was scared because the new sound was heavier, full of hip-hop. I still loved it, but couldn’t pinpoint why. I waited, saw them a few more times, and they tightened. I heard “Push Some Air.” I heard “Be At Peace.” These songs were beautiful. I kept the faith.

Over the years, I’ve gotten to first meet, then hang with, and then truly get to know the band. They’ve gone through several line-up changes and all the while the JBB family continued to grow. I loved these artists not just as a band, but as people. Sometimes I’d leave a conversation ready to cry because of how genuine they were. The JBB family has seen so many singers and players, and each one of them has added to the band.

JBB taught me about songwriting, about how to put on a live show. They introduced me to many modern reggae bands as well as to countless people I now consider friends. After 20 years, JBB is taking a break, maybe forever. They chose to finish on New Year’s Eve, a time I generally spend in reflection. Perhaps my sadness about this news was a message to reflect, and I’ve taken this opportunity to do just that. Regardless, for me it’s an easy decision: Given the choice between another JBB show and everything JBB has given me over the years, I’d take the latter.

Because of this meditation, I just want to take a moment here to thank John Brown’s Body. Everyone from the original line-up, those who helped them progress, those who persevered with the band and those who helped them finish strong. Memories of Cape Cod, Boston harbor, North Carolina, NYC, California and more flood me head to toe whenever I put on a JBB record. I remember growing my dreadlocks, going to festivals, taking the train into Grand Central Station, and driving hours just for one show because each show was meaningful.

In their own words:

“The more we seek, the less we feel.

We go too far and miss what’s here;

Let’s keep it real.

Please don’t clone me, just remember me.

There are spirits all around us.”

The spirit of that morning in the UVM dorms, with cold air meeting hot, with my best friend, with the world ahead of me―that spirit is my spirit, and it’s a blessing.

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