There were three kinds of cloud cover at the Rebelution concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl Sunday night. One was the marine layer, which by the end of the concert had slithered into town so far that the audience started to get damp; another was the dry ice smoke spilling from the stage; and the third was from the audience and … well, you can probably guess what it was and how it smelled.
This was the audience that had come out to see Santa Barbara/Isla Vista’s Rebelution. Nine years ago they were a reggae jam band who played their “front yard and back yard” as well as garage parties for UCSB students. Most groups like this would have dissipated after graduation, but Eric Rachmany and his group kept at it, releasing three albums, incessantly touring, and garnering followers in Hawaii and beyond, not just here. (Although KJEE has helped them out a lot.)
“Thank you guys for making our dream come true,” said Mr. Rachmany to the packed Bowl crowd. All Santa Barbara bands aim for a headline act at this venue; not everybody makes it. To spread the love at this “Good Vibes” tour, the band brought along three other opening acts, with the doors opening near 4 p.m. Zion I are a hip hop duo from Oakland whose sound combines electronica, trap, dub reggae and pretty much anything that grabs their fancy. And Collie Buddz hails from Bermuda and raps and/or sings about girls and weed interchangeably.
Before Rebelution took the stage, Jewish rapper Matisyahu played his set. Tall and bald, Matisyahu both sings and raps in his songs too, backed by a three-piece band — a tight drummer, an indulgent guitarist, and a steady bassist. His sound over the speakers was muddy and distorted (unlike Rebelution’s, which was crisp and balanced), making most of his lyrics a mumble of vibrating tones. His band too veered from reggae to rock, matching Matisyahu’s own interest in several genres. The rock guitar solos squealed along to a deadening effect, however. Fans sang along to all the lyrics, so at least some people could make them out. Matisyahu even did some crowd-surfing and nearly lost a shoe in the process.
Finally, once the sun had gone down and the lights went up, Rebelution took the stage. They had a large backdrop, with their name in black-light purple-colored gothic script. Persian rugs covered the stage. A large potted plant meant to look like weed decorated the drum riser. Behind a barricade to the back of the stage, young fans gathered, getting a special behind-the-scenes performance to watch. And off to the left near the front, a young female artist worked on a canvas, having started hours ago. From this reviewer’s distance it looked like a large chimpanzee head, or maybe a lion. (She finished by the end of the concert, at least.)
Eric Rachmany is a laid-back frontman with a great stage presence, all friendly and approachable. There’s very little in-between patter, but not in an anti-social or bored way, but in a workaday sense. Bassist Marley D. Williams bopped and bounced about the stage, while drummer Wesley Finley worked his kit within the confines of reggae. The amount of spacey echo applied to his snare sometimes made it the largest sound of the whole concert, even compared to the air-vibrating low bass. Keyboardist Rory Carey provided steady skanking lines and occasional sci-fi effects.
Opening with “Green to Black” from their 2008 album “Courage to Grow,” the band started with a ’70s reggae vibe and never really let up. “Sky Is the Limit,” one of their biggest hits (and a KJEE favorite) followed next, and showed off their brass section — Khris Royal on sax and another player — whose name I couldn’t catch — on trumpet. The riffs that make up a majority of Rebelution’s sound were shared equally between the brass and Rachmany’s guitar.
The longer format of the performance — a full 90 minutes, 18 songs in total — did reveal the weaknesses of Rebelution’s sound. They quote the 1970s sound of reggae and pretty much remain there, with keys either minor (the slower songs) or major (the bouncy, uptempo ones). The Jamaican patois that used to get Sting criticized during his stint with the Police is just now a part of the genre that needs quoting, along with the drumming style. Plus, Mr. Rachmany’s melodic lines get repetitive quickly, rarely veering from its root note in a sing-songy delivery.
Girl trouble, celebrating diversity, and smoking the herb are the main concerns. There’s hooky variations to be fair: “Safe and Sound” borrows from Cat Stevens, just as “Other Side” features the horn line from Bill Withers’ “Just the Two of Us.” The group brought Zion I back on stage for “So High” and finished with “Outta Control”, sending everybody out happy. The group has made it and celebrated in style. But it was a long night, as well.