By Caleb Calhoun
How exactly does one come up with a band name like Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad? To be honest, with music this good and a vibe this chill, it’s hard to even care. Seriously, it’s hard to care about anything other than dancing when they are playing. This post-election Saturday night, that seems like a damn fine thing.
The venue itself doesn’t hurt. Asheville Music Hall is the perfect place to see a good reggae show. From the little gypsy market in the back to the always respectful crowd leaving room for the spinners at the front it’s a guaranteed good time.
And that crowd. Downtown Asheville Saturday night at it’s finest. Dreadlocks and Brooks Brothers shirts rubbing against one another at the bar. Adorable hippie chicks with skirts too short for the cold weather. Cute couples flirting and giggling as they wait for the music to start. The scene couldn’t be more encouraging.
The lineup for the night is stellar. Roots of a Rebellion followed by Treehouse and then Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad. Roots of a Rebellion is interesting but the energy isn’t quite at full-power yet. Treehouse has no such problem. Their sound and their stage presence is perfect. Along with the trombonist (Derrick Johnson) from Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band, they get the crowd’s hips and shoulders nicely loosened up.
As we wait for the main event, I think back through my conversation with Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad drummer and founding member, Chris O’Brian. For a band whose formative years were marked by major touring (150-plus shows per year), they’ve backed off of that approach the past few years.
“It’s like reality switched from, you know, being on the road was life,” O’Brian tells me candidly. “I would swing through (home) to get my wits about me and change my pants and go right back out on the road. Now the road is the alternate thing. When I’mm home these days I find myself spending more time writing emails than playing drums, so it is really nice to get back on the road where I can see and enjoy the fans.”
Knowing that this is the last night of their current tour, I’m feeling great about the show. If ever there was a band primed and ready to leave it all on the proverbial field, this seems like it.
They come out jamming, but they’re not exactly noodling. They transition the first few songs to get the crowd into it and finish off the medley with Walk Right, one of my personal favorites.
The crowd, which has been steadily growing and headily warmed up, is really coming to life. I make my way toward the front to dance. Those around me courteously let me pass and make room. Kindness is the norm. Dancing is encouraged. Love is the common ground.
Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad is on fire as expected. After Walk Right they stay with a few more tunes from their newest album, Make it Better, and I am honestly surprised at how many of the people around me know the words by heart. Still, it is a nice change of pace when they head into a classic Mr. Cop>Pockets>Healing>Steady medley, and you can feel the energy shift on the dance floor.
Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad seems to feel the shift and run with it. Their sound becomes a little more dub. The vibe gets a lot more sexy. I leave the front to find my date and we dance close all the way through Favorite Song. Not that I am really looking around at this point, but I can feel that we’re sharing a great energy with the entire room of strangers. Check that. This entire room of friends.
I’m a rail-rider at heart, so I reluctantly head back up to the front. It takes about a half a second to shed any reluctance. I’m completely engrossed, all sense of time and proportion lost.
My Panda-stomped brain tells me that at some point the set ended. I’m pretty sure there was an encore followed by a ridiculous amount of hugging, a reasonable amount of kissing, and then a very, very long drive home.
I’m somewhat confident that I sat down at my computer to write, chain-smoking weed and failing multiple times at rolling a cigarette along the way. I’m relatively certain that at some point I made coffee and that that coffee should be done by now.
Now back to that question about the band’s name. Before Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad, it was Le Bomb Squad. Before that Bomb Squad. Before that Funk You. Before that Chris O’Brian, his brother Matt, and James ? were playing music in their basement.
“We were just jamming, playing Grateful Dead type stuff,” O’Brian reminisces. “Of course this is before we had ever heard The Grateful Dead. We really got into a lot of Miles Davis fusiony stuff but weren’t good enough to play it so it just came out kind of sounding like Phish.”
Finally coalescing around an island sound in 2004, they decided to go with Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad. “We were like, ‘no one will ever get that confused’”, O’Brian adds with a laugh.
Best-laid plans right? Still, these guys have been playing good music for 12 solid years and, no matter what people call them, Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad comes out to get down. Tonight was not the exception to the rule.
Caleb Calhoun studied writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and music at a plethora of clubs and bars across the southeast. He is the author and publisher of Rosman City Blues and currently resides outside of Asheville with his dog and best friend, Dr. Gonzo.
You can reach him at Caleb.firstname.lastname@example.org and/or Facebook.com/GonzoNC.