Arts & Entertainment, The Muse

Pandas, guerillas and dubs, oh my!

There’s reggae, there’s dub, there’s roots music, and then there’s the undeniable energy that is Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad. The six-piece band, from Rochester, N.Y., graced the stage of The Middle East Upstairs on Sunday night.

Driven by dual keyboards and a ferociously intense bass, Giant Panda’s music virtually drips with reggae heaviness in a way that makes it impossible to not dance along. Coupled with the exotic d’eacute;cor of The Middle East, the atmosphere of the room was like something out of a Jamaican nightclub, positively oozing with laid-back vibrations.

And while the dub is thick, it is the contrasting elements of their music that makes them unique. A low end pounded home by bassist James Searl, organist Aaron Lipp and keyboardist Rachel Orke pulses beneath the light, airy guitar riffs of Dylan Savage and the reggae rhythm of guitarist Matthew O’Brian, while rising above it all are the soaring lyrical harmonies put forth by Searl and O’Brian.

And it is the vocals that really set this band apart. Led by Searl, who played the entire night with a look of intensity that would have been more at home at a Metallica concert, and O’Brian, the vocal harmonies were flawless and provided a welcome foil for the rest of the band. The lyrics, too, provided social commentary on a number of levels and only served to make the band more intriguing.

Nowhere was this more poignant Sunday night than on the tracks from Giant Panda’s 2006 debut album, Slow Down. Both ‘Burkina Faso’ and ‘Seasons Change’ allowed the band to stretch out and provided space for O’Brian’s raw guitar solos while still letting the harmonies and lyrics shine.

‘Burkina Faso’ exemplified the band’s ability to combine laid-back guitars with a driving rhythm section. In the ultimate example of the two sides of Giant Panda’s sound, Searls stood to one side of the stage head-banging his way through his bass parts, while Savage played the majority of the set with his eyes closed, seeming to feel his way through the music with a look of complete contentment.

The highlight of the night, however, was the song ‘Seasons Change.’ Vocal scatting by Searls and O’Brian and an extended jam showcasing the band’s technical abilities built this song into a swirling whirlwind. At the jam’s apex, it broke back into the chorus with the proclamation ‘rap dub is here to stay,’ a statement of intent from a band that is growing in popularity every day.

Giant Panda performed all over the country in 2007, playing 180 dates from coast to coast, including a three-week tour of Jamaica, before winning over legions of fans at such popular summer festivals as Mountain Jam in upstate New York and Wakarusa in Kansas this year. This swing through Cambridge on the latest leg of their winter tour is in support of the release of their upcoming new album in early January.

If you don’t like to dance, Giant Panda will move you. If you don’t like to sing, Giant Panda will sing for you. And if you don’t like the dub? Giant Panda will convert you.

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  1. Great article! Phenomenal job covering shows as usual Dan.

  2. ’09 takeover!

  3. Mountain Jam was in downstate New York.

  4. giant panda is pretty righteous. Well done, sir