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Eats, Skanks and Leaves: Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad has kept up a vigorous touring schedule.

Mod Squad

Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad brings Empire State-style reggae to Moe's Alley.

By Garrett Wheeler

Ask Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad drummer Christopher O'Brian what it's like to be a reggae band from Rochester, New York, and you're likely to be confounded by his humility. 'It's an honor,' O'Brian says. 'Reggae influences so many people, and to be able to share the spiritual and emotional power of the music in upstate New York is a blessing.'

Not that reggae music is in any way new to the East Coast. In fact, Bob Marley himself first played Brooklyn in 1971, returning to New York a total of eight times before his last tour in 1980. Still, there's something to be said for a young group of New Yorkers drawn to a style of music invented on a tiny Caribbean island 40-odd years ago. Maybe it's Bob's legacy, maybe it's the power of reggae music itself, or a combination of the two--but the fact remains that Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad is a reggae band with a very long name from New York, and a damn fine one at that.

Blending the melodic structure of roots reggae with the modern dub sound (emphasizing drum and bass lines), Giant Panda expresses the feel-good vibes of reggae with astonishing clarity and the unbridled passion so often found in the genre. Lyric content is equally uplifting, celebrating both life and the individuals that exist within it.

'We create life music about everyday people and the common ground we all share,' O'Brian says, crediting his brother Matt O'Brian (guitar, vocals), James Searl (bass, vocals) and Dylan Savage (guitar, vocals) with most of the songwriting.

The O'Brian brothers, along with Searl, began playing music together over 12 years ago, but the current six-man (plus one woman, keyboardist Rachel Orke) touring lineup didn't materialize until 2006. Since then, the group has embarked on a series of full-fledged tours of the continental United States, as well as a three-week stint in Negril, Jamaica. Now gearing up for a long summer tour, the band is taking a well-deserved break from the road.

'We're taking some time to relax and rehearse--it was a crazy winter,' O'Brian says. How crazy? 'We drove up to Portland, Maine during a snow storm. The trip took us 10 hours and when we got there the club owner told us that he wasn't opening the doors because of the foul weather.'

But the pitfalls of a vigorous tour schedule are slight in comparison to the rewards. Sharing the stage with legendary reggae performers like Toots and the Maytals, Yellowman and Morgan Heritage, Giant Panda is beginning to assert itself as a viable contributor to the modern reggae movement.

Even with initial success, another potential obstacle for Giant Panda seems to be in reggae music itself, or rather, in the historical narrative behind reggae music. Having emerged from the slums of Jamaica in the mid '60s, reggae is associated with the struggle against the island's oppressive colonial past.

But credibility has never concerned the Dub Squad, mostly, O'Brian says, because 'we make songs that are relevant to us and the people around us.' O'Brian points out that reggae music is an international phenomenon and possibly the fastest-growing genre in the world.

'In Jamaica, a man who had never left the island told me that we were bringing his culture back. Here I was a 23-year-old from New York, and I was giving him a taste of the Jamaican music from his day.'

What better place to showcase their mellow music than Santa Cruz? Not many. Well, maybe Jamaica.

GIANT PANDA GUERRILLA DUB SQUAD plays Tuesday, April 1 at 9pm at Moe's Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $8 adv/$10 door; 831.479.1854.

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