Review: Pepper @ Crystal Ballroom

Take Passafire for instance.  Chosen among the top reggae acts of 2008 by iTunes, these four (Ted Bowne, guitar/vocal, Adam Willis, keyboards/vocals, Nick Kubley, Drums and Will Kubley, bass/vocal) who met during a music project while students at the Savannah College of Art and Design – except for Will Kubley, who was a high school senior at the time – have embraced their inner Rasta with insightful lyrics and a lot of fun.  They played selections from both their self titled debut and 2007’s Submersible and sprinkled in a couple of songs from their forthcoming and as yet untitled album.  Personal favorites were Rude Boi, which emphasized the vocal interplay of the band and a song late in the set, when Smally from the Supervillains joined them on sax.  Maybe it was the contact high, or maybe it was the famous floating dance floor, but the mosh pit rolled with a bit more energy for the rest of the set.

Let me explain the contact high before I go much further.  I have been to dozens of shows at the Crystal Ballroom.  It’s a great venue with a wonderful and experienced staff.  But this was the first time I was frisked on the way in.  They had stationed one employee on the street, shouting out the night’s rules like a carnival barker.  “Men on the right, ladies on the left, there is no smoking of any kind, no re-entry and no second chances”.  There was a cursory pat down for me, but I saw security emptying pockets, dumping purses, the whole nine yards.  And there was the pile of contraband to consider.  All manner of pipes, papers, pill bottles and airplane booze bottles (who sneaks whiskey into a bar?  Oh, yeah, it was an all ages show, never mind) were stacked neatly in the corner near the will call window.

Still, with all this due diligence going on, and as professionally as the Crystal staff acted, they could not stop the influx of ganja.  From my vantage point in the under 21 section I stood between three groups who managed to get, clockwise from directly in front of me, joints, a glass pipe and, I shit you not, a bong about 18 inches tall, through the security gauntlet.  All hail the inventiveness of the modern day stoner.

After a short intermission The Supervillains climbed to the stage, led by their neon pink haired drummer/singer, Dom.  Talk about fun, these guys laid it all out there with the funk groove brought on by a horn section (the aforementioned Smally and Cardo on trumpet).  For starters, songs with titles like Resin, Get High Today, Crippy Weed and Mary Jane & Jager, they let it be know they were here to party.  They made the New Yorker in me jealous that I didn’t think to put Billy Joel’s Moving Out (Anthony’s Song) to a reggae rhythm.  What a hoot!  I never thought I would see moshing and crowd surfing done to a Billy Joel song.  Live and learn, live and learn.

During Get High Today I was caught by the way the dred locked Skart scratched his guitar through lick after lick, trailed handily by Cardo’s trumpet interjections that blended like rum and coconut. I was also impressed by their latest single You Got Me from Massive.  It’s a catchy quasi-love song with a great groove that has summer hit written all over it.

By the time Pepper appeared, the haze was heavy and the under 21crowd that surrounded me was in full giggle.  I decided to make my way around to the ‘grown up’ section and check out the view from the other side of the room.  Lucky for me I did, too, cause I talked my way into the VIP section just in time to see Pepper bring the house down.  Shirtless and for the most part hairless, with Hawaiian tans and surfer shorts, reggae’s version of a power trio literally bounced onto the stage and the audience took full advantage of the floating dance floor for the next 75 minutes.  This show was a Pepper fan’s dream night.  The sold out crowd sang along on most songs, fist pumped and roughed up each other in total bliss.

After the first few numbers, guitarist Kaleo Wasman asked the audience for requests.  “We have no set list tonight.  We are relying on you guys to tell us what you want,” he shouted.  And we got what we wanted.  Someone shouted “Stormtrooper”.  The guy next to me damn near blew out my eardrum by bellowing “Are You Down” at the top of his lungs.  Brett Bollinger, the bass guitarist must have heard him and off they went.  Joined at times by members of both opening acts, this threesome sprinkled the set with nuggets from throughout their 12 year career.  The drum solo, a dying art if you ask me, fit perfectly between songs and was nailed by percussionist Yesod Williams.  The band rejoined him with their latest, Freeze so seamlessly that I literally jumped at the shouted vocal.

These guys reminded me of seeing the Police thirty years ago, but with a touch of Red Hot Chili Peppers tossed in for good measure.  Bollinger’s vocals ranged from Elvis Costello’s croon to Henry Rollins intensity, with song styles incorporating reggae, ska, hip hop and blatant, Z-100-worthy pop (though the lyrical content would play havoc with the censors).  My highlight of their set was 2004’s Ashes from In With The Old.  As a fan in the audience, I got what I wanted.

Somewhere during their set, my mellow contact high had disappeared, replaced by the worked up, hyper buzz that this kind of concert can give you.  And as I headed up Burnside toward my truck I checked the time.  Slightly past midnight.  It was Monday morning already.  My alarm would be going off in about five hours.  And I was downtown still.  And I felt wired, absolutely energized, with sleep the furthest thing from my mind.  Before I started the engine, I texted my crew.  “I may be a bit late Monday”.  I keyed it in and hit send.

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