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Reggae group SOJA keeps crowd riveted at Rockin’ on the River

Though ominous skies might have reduced the audience size at the second installment of the Rockin’ on the River concert series, North Tonawanda’s Gratwick Riverside Park still welcomed a crowd of thousands Friday night for four spirited sets of music headlined by SOJA – the hottest reggae band in America.

As SOJA discovered, most in the crowd seemed to be from Buffalo – a sign that the series is succeeding in bringing outsiders to its splendid setting alongside the Niagara River.

With a pushed-up starting time in light of the weather forecast, a sparse crowd enjoyed the 40-minute opening set from young local quintet Skyepilot, whose jam base is buoyed by a siren of a singer in Sky Del Re.

Both the crowd and clouds began to fill in as hometown heroes Aqueous played an increasingly rare local show, in between tour stops in Virginia and Kentucky, further asserting itself as the hardest-working band in Buffalo.

“We usually say we’re from Buffalo,” said singer-guitarist Mike Gantzer, during the only stop in the quartet’s 50-minute set, “but the truth is we’re from right here in North Tonawanda.”

Amid the only drops of rain that hit all night, another homecoming came next as North Tonawanda native and singer-guitarist-saxophonist Dan Keller helped steer Rochester’s Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad through an hour of airy dub, ska, funk and one-drop reggae, with three-part harmonies pure and true, highlighted by “Steady,” their biggest hit and suitable wedding walk-out.

As the sun went down, the crowd – now in the thousands – eagerly greeted the arrival of SOJA, the Arlington, Va., octet whose relentlessly intense two-hour set proved their place as a worldwide sensation. The two grade-school soulmates at the center of SOJA’s sound propelled throughout. Singer-guitarist Jacob Hemphill croons in a cool, low-and-slow nasal groove that tempers the relentless rhythm of bassist Bobby Lee Jefferson, who kicks, jumps, struts and stomps his way around the stage whenever he’s not relieving Hemphill’s lead vocals with a bellowing dance hall brogue.

The other band members not only follow the lead of Hemphill and Jefferson but are clearly encouraged to own the stage themselves, as from the opening salvo of “Tear it Down,” Hellman Escorcia (saxophone, vocals), Rafael Rodriguez (trumpet, vocals) and Trevor Young (guitar, vocals) all navigated the stage like caged tigers, from standing on drummer Ryan Berty’s riser to leaning over the edge toward the crowd.

Calmer ballads, “She Still Loves Me” and “Decide You’re Gone,” gave way to stream-of-consciousness callouts in “I Don’t Wanna Wait,” wailed harmonies in “Tell Me” and mean riffs to match Jefferson’s message in “Be Aware.”

“Easy Skankin’” this ain’t. SOJA simply won the crowd, which stayed entirely engaged with Hemphill’s chanting and fixed gaze as well as guest rapper Alfred Duncan’s frequent forays, including into the middle of the crowd. As Hemphill and Young were left alone to riff the closing notes of “Not Done Yet,” the rest of the band formed a semicircle of drums, adding a whistle and cowbell for a wild workout that would’ve been enough to close the show. Yet they played five more songs before bowing in victory.

Let there be no doubt, SOJA is a big-time band bound to keep climbing the reggae charts and worldwide festival circuit.

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