Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

St. Petersburg, Jannus Live become hubs for America's new reggae-rock movement

Eric Rachmany is trying to count how many times he's played St. Petersburg.

"Oh, man," says the singer of Santa Barbara, Calif. group Rebelution. "I'd say, like, 15 times, maybe?"

There was a sweaty summer show at the old Garage Bar, now the Local 662, when the A.C. broke and "people were just swaying, looking like they were going to pass out." There was a more recent show at Jannus Live, when it began to downpour, but "everybody just went nuts and made the most of it. It added to the amazing night."

And then there's been a gig or two that coincided with St. Pete's First Friday street parties. "Those are pretty crazy," he chuckles. "I might try to avoid those."

Next week, Rebelution will return to Jannus Live for a rare two-night stand, something no band has attempted since Sublime With Rome in 2010. That both bands are superstars of the loose and languid genre known as reggae rock is no coincidence.

Jannus Live — and St. Petersburg as a whole — has become a national hub for reggae rock, a genre frequently ignored, if not outright maligned, by critics and musical tastemakers. Here, bands like Rebelution, Slightly Stoopid, SOJA, the Dirty Heads, Pepper, Iration, Passafire and the Expendables pack in up to 2,000 fans per show — usually below the radar of local radio and media — thanks to diligent promoters and the city's fervent, self-sustaining scene.

"When you go to Iowa and play this stuff, it might be a good escape for the locals, but it's not a way of life," said Pat Downes, singer for Badfish: A Tribute to Sublime, who play Jannus Live on June 27. "We can do 10 shows in a row in Florida. We can't do that in one state in too many other places."

•••

Since the 1960s, traditional Jamaican roots reggae has had a titanic influence on all of pop and rock music, touching artists ranging from the Clash to the Police, the Beastie Boys to 311.

But its Americanized stepchild known as reggae rock didn't truly emerge until the '90s, when Long Beach, Calif. punk trio Sublime hit upon a combination of breezy rhymes, sly riffs and smart samples that connected with fans in a fresh new way. The band's self-titled 1996 album spawned several genre-crossing hits, including What I Got and Santeria, that still linger on the radio.

"It's like they ran through music, space and time and just started pulling stuff that they liked and made sense, and put it in a pot," says Downes. "They kind of created the formula within one band."

For better and worse, Sublime — who, following the death of singer Bradley Nowell, now tour as Sublime With Rome — provided the template for a generation of tank-topped white guys singing about cannabis culture and the California coast. But nearly 20 years later, many artists are trying to push reggae rock in creative new directions. For every artist who worships Sublime or Bob Marley, there's another who has more in common with Dave Matthews Band or Jack Johnson.

"It's so hard to describe it," said Rachmany, whose parents are Persian and Jewish. "'Reggae rock' is probably a good starting point. But we don't just do rock, either. Sometimes you get some R&B in our stuff, some pop, even progressive rock, sometimes a little bit of hip hop, and then you've got roots reggae, also. I think the best way to describe it is: Reggae is the foundation of our music, but there are so many different styles within the Rebelution sound. I think one person said 'hybrid reggae,' and I really like that."

Reggae rock has grown so diverse, and so popular, that it's starting to surface in the pop world. Canadian pop band MAGIC!, whose singer has produced songs for Justin Bieber and Chris Brown, has a rising Top 10 single with the reggae-rock-tinged Rude. Country acts like Zac Brown Band, Sugarland and Kenny Chesney (who recorded Spread the Love with reggae greats the Wailers) have shown love for beach rock. Even Snoop Dogg released a reggae album under the name Snoop Lion.

Some artists lament this co-option of their peaceful little subculture, but most acknowledge it's been good for their bottom line. Rebelution's stylistically diverse new album, Count Me In, just debuted at No. 14 on the Billboard 200, and bands like Pepper and the Dirty Heads are getting airplay on active rock radio.

"The music seems to be getting a little more sophisticated, a little more professional," said Joseph Dickens, the drummer for Iration, who have sold out Jannus Live in the past and who will open for Rebelution next week. "These days it's more of a pop-rock influence, in terms of catchy lyrics, catchy hooks, instead of just a straightforward reggae song. It's more mainstream, more radio-friendly."

As a result, huge reggae-rock festivals are sprouting up around the country. In August, the Blackwater Music Festival will return to Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak after a three-year absence; the lineup so far includes Slightly Stoopid, Stephen Marley, Steel Pulse and the Easy Star All Stars.

"I do feel like the movement is spreading, slowly but surely," said Rachmany. "People want to root for something positive. People come out to these shows, and they feel this overwhelming positive feeling when they leave. When they're listening to it in their car, it's reminding them to think positively. That's a pretty special thing."

•••

Few cities on the East Coast support the reggae-rock lifestyle quite like St. Petersburg.

"If you go to downtown Orlando, or if you go to South Tampa, there's more of a 'dress up to go out' thing," said Matt Lloyd, Jannus Live's VP of operations. "I think it's great that in 99 percent of the places around here, you can wear cargo shorts and flip flops and get in, no problem."

No establishment fits that description better than Jannus Live. Under the open air, nestled in a historic courtyard, surrounded by buzzing bars and restaurants, "it's got a festival vibe without it being a festival," Lloyd said.

The venue has long hosted legendary reggae acts like Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals, Burning Spear and the Wailers. And when new owners took over in 2009, they wanted to embrace that history.

In 2012, Jannus Live partnered with the Pinellas-based surf report website Gulfster.com to produce and promote a weekly, low-cost reggae-rock series called Gulfster Presents. Before long, national acts who once drew 200 fans per show were drawing four and five times that. "They were ecstatic over the turnout, so they would just pour it out even more on stage," said promoter Adam St. Simons, who created the series.

Concert by concert, a community evolved. It became a bit like the jam-band scene — fans would come to show after show, regardless of whose name was on the marquee, seeking the positive energy, the spiritual "consciousness," that courses throughout reggae-rock music.

"Jannus Live is my home away from home," said local promoter and photographer Alyssa Hill, 24, a lifelong reggae fan. "Whenever bands like that come to town, that's like my form of church. I feel the closest to Jah, to God, when I'm there. I love that Jannus Live is an outdoor venue — it's just a different feeling, a different energy vibration, because it's outdoors and you just feel more connected to the people."

Soon, it wasn't just Sublime With Rome or Rebelution drawing crowds in the thousands. Support trickled down to St. Petersburg's own fertile reggae-rock scene.

In December, The Hip Abduction held an album release party at Jannus Live and drew a crowd of more than 1,800 — an astonishing number for a local act. "It was huge for us," said singer David New. "Now we're in the national game. Now we're getting calls from California and New York. We got signed to a booking agency out of Athens., Ga. Record labels have been calling."

Another St. Pete band, Burning Tree, has opened local gigs by national acts like Ballyhoo! and Passafire. They now play around the Southeast, and their forthcoming album Grinder was produced by Passafire singer Ted Bowne. "St. Pete's really a cradle for what we do," said Mike Fratone, 30. "Everybody seems to really enjoy it, and we're never hard-pressed to find gigs."

Kenny Mullins, singer for the local reggae-rock band Resinated — who will play the Blackwater Music Festival in August — puts it this way. "I've played in pretty much every major city in Florida now, and St. Pete — I'm not just saying it because I'm from here — it has the most love. It just does."

Jannus Live, he said, has as much to do with that as anything. "It just delivers what Florida feels like," he said. "The outside courtyard with the tree? That's what reggae is: Life and music, outside, good vibes. It's the perfect package."

     
 
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