SOJA / John Butler Trio, The Filene Center at Wolf Trap, Vienna, VA- 7/31
When The John Butler Trio returned to the Wolf Trap center for the Performing Arts for their third time in the band’s history, fans were immediately excited. But when you add local heroes SOJA to the bill, for their largest hometown gig to date, excitement and anticipation skyrocketed to an all time high. This was more than just a colossal double bill at one of the most pristine outdoor venues in the DC area. It was ceremony as the Soldiers Of Jah’s Army (SOJA) reached another milestone in their blossoming career, as they helped sell out one of their favorite venues for the first time just 20 minutes from their hometown Arlington, VA.
Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Alice Smith also supported JBT and SOJA as she opened up the evening at 7 PM. Smith took the stage and provided rich, soulful and bluesy numbers with class. Smith exchanged excessive showmanship, or stage production for raw music at its absolute core. It was just herself with a single backing acoustic guitar player and one microphone stand. Smith won over the audience and set the tone for what was yet to unfold.
Things shifted gears when Australian native John Butler took the stage with his current line up of Byron Luiters on bass and Nicky Bomba on drums, Bomba is not only Butler’s brother-in-law, but he’s also previously been a member of The John Butler Trio.
As is his tradition, as soon as Butler took the stage he greeted the crowd and insisted we all take a moment to recognize the native people of the land and pay respect by acknowledging their ancestors. The band opened up with “Johnny’s Gone,” a number off the band’s most recent record April Uprising. This song is no stranger to the opening spot and for good reason as it pumps energy through the crowd and gets everyone nice and loose. After the song came to an end, Butler went on to introduce his inspiration to the next song when he sees people “addicted to reality TV, Walmart and all that BS crap.” The band then slammed into “Used to Get High,” one of their most recognized and powerful songs from their repertoire.
John Butler’s dynamic songwriting fits well with his intricate musical compositions. His quick guitar playing and precise finger picking produce rapid and mesmerizing waves of fluidity and consistency. He does this all while keeping his eyes closed as he tenderly sings into the microphone. It’s that sort of energy and laid-back attitude that keeps fans focused and locked into his every move completely entrapped in the music.
The John Butler Trio filled their set well with such staples as “Zebra,” “Funky Tonight,” “Better Than,” “Revolution” and “Ocean.” The song “Ocean” is one of Butler’s earliest compositions and quite possibly one of his most important. This instrumental number averages over 10 minutes long as Butler incorporates heavy strumming, finger tapping up and down the fret board and flawless finger picking, all of which continuously build and build and as the music starts to grow. Butler used to play “Ocean” and sell single cassette tapes when he was homeless on the streets in Australia. This is one of the songs that lit the fire in people’s hearts and Butler has coined it his “conversational piece.” From here as Butler’s notoriety and success grew, he’s never forgotten where he came from and makes it a point to give back to various homeless organizations, including Harmonic Humanity. Butler and company stuck around after their set to meet and greet fans at the back of the house proving that they will always be a band there for the people.
Just as the rain started to pick up it was time for SOJA to grace their hometown crowd and reach another historic achievement in their home state of Virginia. SOJA had always dreamed of selling out the Wolf Trap and through a die-hard fan base that seems to multiply after each tour and relentless word-of-mouth spreading around the DC area about this gig, their dreams were turned into a reality.
Rhythm guitar player and lead singer, Jacob Hemphill wasted no time to show his admiration to the crowd as the significance of the evening really set in. Speaking over a screaming house, Hemphill addressed the crowd. “This means so much to us, we’ve always dreamed about headlining this venue and it sold out! Every band says ‘we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our fans,’ but we really mean it. We’re a white reggae band from Virginia so it’s easy for people to overlook us, but we love you so much and definitely wouldn’t be here without you,” said Hemphill.
Wolf Trap sits a mere five-minute drive from where SOJA had their first gig, at the old Firehouse in Vienna where less than five people were in attendance. Fast forward less than a decade and over 7,000 people were in attendance singing most songs word for word. The thing that’s most impressive about SOJA is that even through the simplicity behind their music, the messages are loud and clear. Lyrically the band tells stories of humanity, political unity and love. The band’s anti-consumerism and pro-environmentalism themes spark optimism for any listener. This traditional up beat mentality is what draws a skeptic to become a fan.
The group wasted no time dropping recognizable hits off their most recent album, Strength To Survive, including “When We Were Younger,” “Let You Go,” “Mentality” and the title track. During “Strength To Survive,” the horn section built up by Hellman Escorcia (saxophone) and Rafael Rodriguz (trumpet) was pumping bursts of energy, escalating the music to new levels as the crowd bobbed and swayed in unison. The energy was at an all time high as the band held the audience in the palm of their hand in complete control.
Another highlight was when the band dropped “Not Done Yet,” a track that tells the story of past memories that have something to prove as the author is lit with a fire of passion. This resulted in bassist Bobby Lee performing his trademark high kicks and walking along the skirt of the stage in a bouncy strut, stomping his feet in unison with the musical drops. SOJA’s set was full of highlights, as the band played such staples, as “When We Were Younger,” “I Don’t Think You Know Me,” “Let You Go,” “Open My Eyes” and “You and Me” among so many more. But there was still so much left in the air that the band could deliver and the crowd was still fully invested.
What separated this from a good show to a great show was how the band filled their encore slot. After SOJA closed out their set, Hemphill returned to the stage solo, armed with an acoustic guitar and warmly played “Everything Changes.” Hemphill insisted that anybody who knew the words should sing along. The crowd naturally obliged the front man’s request. The horn section joined Hemphill for some backing vocals to really complete this inspiring ballad. The band then played “Sorry” which flowed nicely into “Tell Me,” only to be surpassed by a stunning rendition of “Here I Am,” a catchy upbeat number with a poignant theme. This particular version featured a full band drum solo that was absolutely priceless.
The future is very bright for SOJA as their fan base continues to multiply. The group is currently putting the final touches on their new album, which will be released early next year in 2014. In the meantime they will continue to tour relentlessly, spreading love through reggae music internationally.