Review: SOJA brings tight, crowd-pleasing reggae to Legends

Alexander McCall

As a music critic, I do my best to objectively explain how music makes me feel. Inevitably, these descriptions are filtered through my own bias as a white suburbanite who grew up on classic rock.

Reggae, and its appended dub-flecked subgenres, is completely foreign to me. Aside from a few names – Lee “Scratch” Perry, the Wailers – I know next to nothing about it.

Thus, it was with curiosity and mild trepidation that I trekked to Legends last Thursday to check out popular reggae act SOJA, which is shorthand for “Soldiers of Jah Army.”

The stage was set with an intriguing, psychedelic opening set from Oregon-native singer Nahko and his energetic backing band Medicine for the People.

Beginning with spaced-out strumming and wordless vocals, Nahko and his trio built lengthy, multi-part songs that stretched out for ten minutes at a time.

Their music was characterized by his peculiar, nasal singing voice and bass-heavy, tribal grooves driven by hand percussion.

Medicine for the People’s set had a rousing effect on the crowd, mostly because of Nahko’s elaborately worded cries for peace and environmental justice. During the time they played, the crowd swelled considerably.

Dreadlocks and loose-fitting hippie attire were common, but more surprising was a substantial contingent of older fans who were clearly passionate about the communal, protest-music slant of the show.

After the opening set, a huge bass rumble came over the speakers. SOJA’s eight members appeared and launched off of the prerecorded music into their rhythmically taut, horn-driven roots reggae.

SOJA’s lead singer and guitarist Jacob Hemphill commanded attention onstage with his strong, unpretentious American voice and antler-like protrusions of dreadlocks.

While Hemphill led songs without a stereotypical Jamaican inflection, his sidekick, bassist Bob Jefferson, occasionally jumped into songs with an incredibly deep, hammed-up Rastafarian drawl, for which the crowd went wild.

The group featured two drummers: one on a real set and the other on electronic percussion. When the groove locked in with staccato bursts from trumpet and saxophone, SOJA was able to cook up countless variations on reggae’s trademark offbeat pulse.

Showmanship was a focus for the night; Hemphill delivered lines like “Airports and marijuana only get me so high” with his tongue firmly in cheek, while Nahko unabashedly removed his shirt halfway through the set, revealing elaborate tattoos.

This emphasis on charismatic performance is a far cry from the mumbled, introverted indie rock shows I’m used to. Thankfully, SOJA balanced their at times cheesy Rasta vibe with rhythmic cohesion and earnest, carefully arranged hooks.

While modern reggae of the sorts in which SOJA specializes – their 2012 album “Strength to Survive” was a huge hit on the Billboard charts – won’t be regular listening material for me, I was struck by the music’s sincere, positive energy.

When performed enthusiastically in front of an audience with a deep, communal love for this kind of art, it was hard to listen to those horns without a smile on my face.

REVIEW: COLIN MOORE, Senior A&E Reporter