Photos by John Shore
Reggae bands sometimes don’t get the serious attention they deserve in the States. The genre can be written off as “simple” and “not complex,” yet we must remind ourselves that it doesn’t matter how many notes it is, but rather how it is played.
Does the song connect with people on a spiritual level, yes or no? The spiritual level some reach with reggae is as much as some enjoy from complex classical music arrangements.
A band like SOJA has transformed from a few reggae heads out of Arlington, VA, with a dream into an international force on the live music scene, into a global sensation, touring the world extensively at an incredible variety of venues and festivals. SOJA’s biggest destination these days – South America.
In an interview (coming out soon) Jacob Hemphill expressed to me that in South America, they take reggae more seriously. He described it as “more of a hip hop crowd” type of energy at the reggae shows there. The crowd is into the music and ready to get down.
Even though they’re on a 40+ national tour with the likes of Slightly Stoopid right now, they still made time to stop in their home stomping grounds with a performance at the Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA.
Let me take you to this picturesque venue — owned by the Department of Interior, the Wolf Trap property boasts several trails, the Filene Center (where SOJA performed), and even a barn for winter performances. This BYOB venue offers a lawn for fans to spread out with their respective crew and really soak in the music.
For SOJA this was coming home of sorts. Everyone in the area loves sharing tales of “back when I saw SOJA…” It seems clear many local venues like the State Theatre or even the basement of Rhodeside Grill (early 2000s) served as great spots to catch the band well before they “hit it big.”
The band’s theme is about messaging. They put out scenarios and contemplative questions that they want fans to answer for themselves. In that sense, they achieve part of the lyrical draw of what made reggae a great genre to begin with.
The band came in hot starting the show with “Creeping In” off their 2003 release, Time of War. This politically charged message begs for peace in a time of war. The group then shifted gears to “Sorry,” which focuses on love gone wrong. The group then transitioned easily into “Mentality.” A highlight came early in the first set with a roaring rendition of “Rest of My Life” off their 2009 album, Born in Babylon. Another fantastic first set moment came when Alfred the MC joined for “Bleed Through.”
The group did a great job of going through catalogue classics, but they also performed strong renditions of newer songs like “I Believe” off the album, Amid the Noise and Haste, released in 2014, which originally featured Micheal Franti and Nahko.
“Born in Babylon” may have been the peak of the night for many fans, a singalong anthem of sorts. The 2009 album was a pivotal point for the band even reaching #11 on Billboard’s Heatseeker charts. It was also a nice way to recognize how far this band has come since that album was released. That album put them on track to really mark their mark on the international music community. The set closed with a roaring rendition of of “Promises & Pills” featuring Alfred the MC, and a double encore of “I Don’t Wanna Wait” and the appropriately titled song “Welcome to DC.”
Listing song highlights is great and all, but really the takeaway from that show was that SOJA gave fans a magical look at the world through their lyrical magnifying glass and delivered their message with a high energy performance marked with top-notch stage presence. With bassist Bob Jefferson literally jumping up and down on stage and pulling full splits, it is hard to not want to soak in all the energy.
With SOJA you get the lyrical connection, the musical connection, and the band is totally into it all the time. There is something to be said about having a great front-man and Jacob Hemphill is just that. The entire band is superbly talented, but they all hold back at times for the sake of the song, one of the hardest things for even the best musicians to do. Because of this, you get really cohesive songs as well as sections where folks can go out on a bit of stretch, like Trevor Young extending heavy rock guitar solos.
Long time SOJA fan Andy Cerutti elaborates, “SOJA have consistently maintained a positive message & uplifting vibe over the years, and that’s just what the world needs right now. They are genuine and down to earth, and I think that’s what really draws people to them, especially the younger fans.”
In all, I left feeling like the band did an amazing job of connecting with the audience. It’s no surprise that they’ve managed to have such a loyal fanbase. Reggae is often taken for granted here in the U.S., but there remains a loyal fanbase to bands like SOJA who are able to connect their message with the minds of so many folks. Many of them have been long time supporters of the band and this particular show was a special hometown one they won’t forget anytime soon.
We have an extensive interview with Jacob Hemphill headed your way soon which explores these topics and more.