It’s not easy to categorize John Brown’s Body’s sound. When they are at full-blast on stage, there’s an awful lot going on all at once. Fortunately, their brassy blend of reggae, funk, rock, electronica, and dub isn’t overly hyper or schizophrenic. It’s a surprisingly focused fusion rooted in catchy melodies, pulsating rhythms, and positive energy.
“The band has made its mark as a very high-energy live show,” says drummer and founding member Tommy Benedetti. “We come from a reggae base and a heavy drum ‘n’ bass foundation, and we add things on top of that, but we have no interest in sounding like anything other than John Brown’s Body.”
The group first took shape in 1996 as a traditional roots-reggae act. Over the years, they stretched out into a more experimental project with the ever-animated Elliot Martin stepping up as the lead singer.
They released their latest collection, Amplify, in 2009 on Easy Star Records. It debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s reggae charts.
An EP titled Re-Amplify (Easy Star) hit the stores soon thereafter, just as the band welcomed three horn players to the lineup: trombonist Scott Flynn, saxophonist Drew Sayers, and trumpeter Sam Dechenne. Since then, the ensemble has toured relentlessly throughout North American, the U.K., Europe, New Zealand, and the Caribbean.
Despite members residing in three different regions, the eight-piece ensemble frequently congregates with ease.
“A handful of us live here in Boston, a couple of guys are in Brooklyn, and a couple are in upstate New York,” says Benedetti. “It’s a challenge, but when we’re off the road, people gotta be where they want to be.”
Benedetti believes that John Brown’s Body doesn’t fit categorization, although the band did fix on a term to describe their style.
“We call what we do ‘future roots,’ which is a nod to the stuff that we love from the 1970s and ’80s — the dub stuff and bands like Burning Spear, Culture, and the classic artists that come before,” says Benedetti. “It’s also acknowledging that it’s our job to put our spin on it. We’re not Jamaican, and we aren’t trying to be Jamaican.”
Coming from a rock background, Benedetti eventually expanded his own musical horizons as a young musician. It’s an attitude shared by everyone in the band.
He dove into jazz and progressive music while studying at the Berklee School of Music. His first serious band after his college days was the Tribulations, which included other soon-to-be members of John Brown’s Body.
“Playing with those musicians at Berklee helped open my ears to a lot of new stuff,” remembers Benedetti. “The guys in Tribulations really turned me on to unbelievably classic reggae shit that started blowing my mind, like Sly and Robbie, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Culture, and the Gladiators. I got into dub stuff from there.”
Last week, Benedetti and his bandmates embarked on a two-week road trip down the East Coast — one of several tours for the year. The trek includes several small music halls and clubs, a featured appearance at FloydFest in Virginia, and a return to the Pour House this week.
“After many years of doing this, it still stokes us up to do this anywhere on the planet,” says Benedetti. “We have a three-piece horn section, so it’s a big, thick, celebratory sound. You’ll dig it.”