SOJA at sundown caps a beautiful day of reggae

Jacob Hamphill

Maybe it’s easy to grow dreadlocks when your name is Hemphill?

On a warm and gorgeous Saturday, a few thunderheads threateningly floated east over Freel Peak, but they never cast a shadow upon MontBleu’s green grass at the second annual Lake Tahoe Reggae Festival.

Weather did not darken this bright day of music, which featured a lineup even better than 2012’s inaugural festival, the first event at the venue between the casino-hotel and the loop road.

SOJA showed why in the last couple of years it has become one of the top-drawing reggae bands in the country. The exceptional musicianship is roots-rock-reggae based and the message is exceedingly positive.


Monica Hedden, left, and Amaranta Colindres of Fairfiled, Calif., dance to the reggae sounds.

In a gracious introduction, frontman Jacob Hemphill said, “We’re SOJA from Washington, D.C. It took us a real long time to get here. But we know good things come for those who wait.”  Hemphill clearly was referring to the fun he and his band were about to have.

An estimated crowd of 2,600 to 2,700 attended the June 29 daylong show, MontBleu spokesman Dave Davis said, adding with a smile: “no problems.”

However, the penultimate band missed a flight from Denver to Reno. Alpha Blondy finally made it, so maybe that was considered a concern and not a problem.

The festival host for the second time was J Ras and Squarefield Massive. Each of the daytime bands was solid: Island of Black and White, Tomorrow’s Bad Seeds, Stick Figure and Passafire. There was hardly a trace of the “California” ska-punk and hip-hop. This was a genuine reggae show.

Slated to begin at 7:30 p.m., Alpha Blondy’s band took the stage at 8 p.m. With the frontman standing backstage, the group played an extended instrumental, which was essentially a sound check.

In the mid-1980s and early ‘90s, Alpha Blondy was undeniably one of the most popular reggae bands in the world. The singer in four languages called out for religious unity and an end to oppression and Aparthied.

At 60 years old, Alpha Blondy doesn’t run back and forth across the stage anymore. And at times his playful yelps sounded almost like an elderly Chihuahua yapping “You kids get off of my yard.” After playing three of his greatest hits, he spoke about religion: Nowhere does it say in the books of Hindu, Christians, Jews and Muslims that killing is appropriate. Jihadists are frauds. Then he said, “We’re ready to rock.”

The “rockers from the Ivory Coast” did just that by playing its first big hit, “Codody Rock.” In an instant, the magic was back. The harmony singers had the crowd join in the vocals, and it was irie. Alpha Blondy followed with the French-English “Politiki,” which was just as stirring. Then it was over. But the young crowd was here for SOJA. It didn’t mind that Alpha Blondy only played 32 minutes. SOJA played a full hour and a half set.

With its youthful passion and energy, SOJA lived up to its headliner status.

Bass player Bobby Lee contributed occasionally with deep reggae rap vocals. Hemphill led the way with comfortable, easy to listen to story-songs delivered like Sam Cooke if he were a white kid from Virginia with dreads down to his knees. Girls in the front screamed as if it were The Beatles.

About Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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