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One-Stop For One Drop: The Dub Apocalypse Boston Residency

article by Dan Murphy

One rewarding benefit of paying close attention to local music is that if you have your ear to the ground, every once in a while you stumble onto an interesting performance that you might not have picked up on otherwise. For almost a year now, some friends from the Boston scene have been touting the merits of Dub Apocalypse, and on June 10th I went to Bull McCabe’s in Somerville (just a few miles outside of Boston) to check out the regular Sunday night residency gig and see what all the hype is about.

Dub Apocalypse is basically an “all-star band” comprised of a revolving door cast of some of Boston’s best players, who get together when they are home from touring to drop some “classic” Roots Reggae grooves (for those familiar with this music, think the Roots Radics or Black Uhuru with Sly and Robbie). The line-up that evening:

Dub Apocalypse

Tommy Benedetti (DRUMS, founding member John Brown’s Body)

Timo Shanko (BASS GUITAR, various including G Love & Special Sauce)

Johnny Trama (GUITAR, various including Peter Prince and the Trama Unit)

Van Gordon Martin (GUITAR, Van Gordon Martin Band)

Dana Colley (BARITONE SAX, founding member of legendary Boston band “Morphine”)

Generally speaking, I’m not a big fan of this “all-star jam” format because often it devolves into an exercise in self-indulgence; however, I was intrigued by the prospect of some top notch musicians creating synergy by collectively locking into some fairly simple rhythms and chord progressions, and then branching out from there into unknown territory.

To execute this format well, it is necessary to have a solid foundation on which to build the groove, and with Dub Apocalypse the cornerstone is the drumming of founder, Tommy Benedetti. Playing a four-piece kit, Benedetti’s style is mastery of simplicity, physically working the hi -hat / kick /snare to produce a sharp tone and unwavering groove….the consummate drummer for a Dub jam. Good start.

However, the other two key rhythm players on this night, Shanko (bass) and Trama (rhythm guitar), came from unexpected backgrounds.

Generally speaking, the classic “Dub” sound also includes fairly simple bass playing. In a genre where many well known lines rarely vary from the formative three notes of the minor third triangle(s), the most important skill, by far, is the ability to focus exclusively on these few variations and lock in with the drummer like clockwork.

Dub Apocalypse

So in this role, one doesn’t typically find an accomplished sax player (Shanko also often sits in with Dub Apocalypse on Tenor), who spends a considerable amount of his time transcribing the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and other jazz greats. Since simplicity often trumps virtuosity in Reggae rhythms, one could even consider such a background to be a bit of a handicap in playing Dub bass.

On this night, Shanko was on point, both holding down the fort, and also tactfully wandering around the fretboard at times without ever deviating, even slightly, from the pocket. The combination of Benedetti and Shanko together was absolutely first rate, and demonstrated the intuitive symbiosis that is typical in the great D&B duos.

Rhythm guitar player Johnny Trama draws from an equally unconventional background (for reggae), most frequently playing 70s style rock, and brings a fairly unique style, and bag of tricks, to the table. Foremost of these is a proprietary three-piece sound (like Kuh-chu-ka). In contrast to a sharp staccato “skank,” which has the tendency to fragment the groove slightly, Trama’s sound had the effect of helping things to move things along, and make the jams a bit more “danceable” than is common in conventional roots. (Worth noting: the crowd was moving frenetically the whole night). Additionally, Trama will occasionally throw in an interesting substitution chord fill or trap and release (which breaks up the chops with a controlled ring). Like Shanko, his uniqueness adds an interesting flavor to the classic roots recipe.

On top of the rhythm foundation were “embellishers” Van on guitar and Dana Colley on Baritone Sax. No stranger to the genre, Vandraws on reggae experience both with his own band and as a former founding member of Spiritual Rez. Well known for his lead guitar shredding, Van was slightly more reserved on this night, laying some seamlessly executed, effects-heavy solos and also backing up on rhythm guitar when Trama would drop a solo of his own.

Dub Apocalypse

Finally, Cooley added an unusual sound to the mix with Bari Sax being rarely played in roots reggae (probably because it operates in a frequency range similar to the bass guitar?). Like all of the other slightly unconventional parts, it also worked exceptionally well.

The small-setting venue also added a homey vibe to the affair and intermission turned into a giant semi-circle of a smoke break on the sidewalk. To my right, some musicians were discussing who was playing with what band at the upcoming Disk Jam Festival, and to my left Colley was lecturing a group on how the Boston Celtics culture transcended sports (this in the middle of the Heat-Celtics conference Final series).

On a near perfect spring night in Somerville, Massachusetts, I was a willing passenger on a Reggae Dub time machine that temporarily carried me back to those magic moments of yesteryear… And if you find yourself in Boston with a free Sunday evening, I highly recommend that you stop by Bull McCabe’s and check out the ride for yourself.


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