Awash in red, green and yellow light, Josh Heinrichs and friends brought a powerful night of dancing to Cornerstone Berkeley’s smoke-filled listening room. Midway through his California tour, Heinrichs’ temporarily expanded ensemble drew an impressively invested crowd — a testament to his continued staying power in modern reggae.
Heinrichs is the former lead vocalist of roots reggae band Jah Roots. Despite the band’s announcement of an indefinite hiatus in 2009, Heinrichs has maintained a successful solo career spanning the world over. Former bandmate Kyle “SkillinJah” Bell has remained a longtime Heinrichs collaborator, and the two feature heavily in each other’s full-length releases. Unsurprisingly, SkillinJah’s surprise appearance on stage in Berkeley was extremely well-received. After an entertaining bit of banter about the effect of newfound wealth on his life — “I no longer need an emergency spliff!” — SkillinJah and Heinrichs launched into a refreshingly catchy remix of their co-written 2011 release, “Emergency Spliff.”
Though their discography is expansive, Heinrichs and Co. played a tight set of dancehall reggae that sadly didn’t include the songs that truly set them apart as a modern reggae flag bearer. The modern American reggae scene often feels saturated with artists content with rehashing island rhythms and lyrical themes that have been beaten to death since the 1960s.
Where today’s dub music — a genre defined by remix one-upmanship — brings creativity and eccentricity to the focus on previously recorded reggae, many present-day artists such as Heinrichs are content with a more relaxed treatment of this source material. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s hard to stand out from such an established status quo.
It doesn’t help, of course, that reggae’s formal elements are so deeply entrenched. Staccato, heavily swung, triplet-feel guitar lines with mirrored keyboards over backbeat percussion form a large part of reggae’s musical vocabulary. Indeed, some of the band’s midset songs began to feel anemically repetitive. The audience, though fairly stoned by this point, seemed to react to the fact that the band felt more like a backing track: consistent to a fault. There was no interplay or reactivity between members, and that ethereal x-factor of the live show seemed to go up in smoke.
While Friday’s concert might exemplify a problem for modern reggae to reconcile with, Heinrichs still managed to entertain in the live setting. His tremulous, powerful voice was dripping with soul, and his lyrics came off as effortlessly sincere. In what is reminiscent of acoustic indie à la Australian reggae-fusion band Sticky Fingers, the duets on Josh Heinrichs’ first album are exceptional and worth exploring. The exposed interplay between main vocals and harmonies often play a part of Heinrichs’ catalogue of songs — something he showcased on “New Love.”
The background singers’ hilariously bombastic stage presence belied a tasteful self-awareness and vocal control that was as entertaining as their exaggerated dancing, but a poor house sound mix didn’t make their voices very audible. At least initially, the core fans in the audience were able to bring an infectious energy in response to Heinrichs’ most famous songs. In one moment, a monstrous, octaved dub bass slowly crescendoed into one of the groups 2016 slow jams, “Good Vibes.” The audience was coaxed into singing a rousing version of the chorus by a smartphone-toting Heinrichs, who later posted the video to the band’s Facebook page.
Overall, the group’s concert proved to be a worthy buy for East Bay reggae lovers looking for a night of live music. Though the crowds thinned as the night went on, it was clear that the remaining fans were having a great time — even if reggae enthusiasts were disappointed in Heinrichs’ failure to showcase his more innovative offerings.