It’s 6:54 PM. The doors to The Canal Club open to the public in six minutes and I’m not on the press list. Two security guards are eyeing me suspiciously as I hurriedly scroll through my emails trying to find the one that says I’m supposed to be there.
“Don’t worry, Donavon will sort you out,” says the owner of the venue, looking up from the list I’m not on. Great. The doors haven’t even opened and I’m about to be kicked out.
Donavon turns out to be a guy in his late 20’s, wearing a Brixton Supply Co. shirt and a baseball cap who has the perpetually harried, “haven’t slept properly in weeks” look of a road manager on his face. He also turns out to be very helpful at resolving my predicament and happily presents me with the promised press pass. I guess it’s hard to be too uptight when you’re on tour with three reggae bands.
In fact, I think it would have been hard for anyone in the audience that night for Tribal Seeds, Ballyhoo!, and Beyond I Sight ft. Gonzo to be uptight. With no barrier to stop them, the crowd lived up to their name and pushed right up to the stage. Surrounded by dreadlocked hair and baggy jeans, but also a fair share of well-groomed PBR drinkers, a young group of parents, who had seen Ballyhoo! three times previously, informed me they would save my spot next to the stage and buy me all the drinks I wanted. The drinks never came but I appreciated the sentiment.
Beyond I Sight and Gonzo, formerly of Fortunate Youth, kicked off the show with a laid back roots reggae set at the perfect tempo for nodding your head. The six piece act were joined on stage by E.N. Young, keyboardist for Tribal Seeds, who completed their sound with syncopated keyboard and clav under Gonzo’s smooth vocals.
The star of their performance though was saxophone player Vincent Villagomez. Like most people, I love some good sax, but find it’s often difficult to come by. Fortunately, on this night Villagomez blessed the crowd with soulful and intense sax melodies that added a unique element to Beyond I Sight’s songs. A favorite from their set was “Good Loving,” a song perfect for any beach, whether in California or on the banks of the James River.
As Beyond I Sight’s gear was cleared to make way for Ballyhoo! the two couples in front of me started to become increasingly excited. One of them had taken to loudly calling me “Maverick” after noticing my Maverick’s surf shop shirt. “Hey Maverick,” he shouted, “you’re going to love these guys!” He may have been drunk but he certainly wasn’t wrong.
Ballyhoo! is one of very few acts who actually sound better live than in their recordings. The four piece group from Maryland brought the energy levels inside The Canal Club to a peak with their blend of East Coast punk rock aggression and West Coast reggae influences. Their set was punctuated by blistering guitar solos from front man Howi Spangler and a roots-reggae style cover of The Fugee’s “Ready or Not.”
During their rendition of “Walk Away,” a track slightly reminiscent of Sublime but with more vocal harmonies, Spangler jumped on top of a light box and encouraged the crowd of old and newly converted Ballyhoo! fans to sing along, which they happily did. Right before their set ended, Spangler took out his iPhone and this video of the smiling crowd. “I told you Maverick!” yelled my new friend, as the stage was cleared for Tribal Seeds.
Following Ballyhoo!’s up-beat performance, Tribal Seeds’ return to groovy reggae was a bit of a shock to the system at first. However, the audience quickly readjusted and began bending, bouncing, and bumping their arms in the air to familiar songs like “The Garden” as well as new material from their “Representing” album.
At the start of “Love Psalm,” the crowd joined lead singer Steven Jacobo, accompanied on stage by Gonzo, in singing the entire intro a cappella. Villagomez also made a guest appearance during Tribal Seeds’ set to add some horns to the already full sounding act. Watching the bands interact you really got the feeling that these guys are good friends on and off the stage.
The collaborative nature of the performance, combined with the dim lights and exposed wooden beams of The Canal Club, created the impression that we had lucked out and stumbled upon a private party in someone’s attic that happened to feature some of the best reggae musicians in America. In a way, that was what happened that night. Whether they came in with friends, strangers, long hair, or facial hair, everyone that night left smiling. As for me, I left with a new nickname and a re-kindled love for all things reggae.