Rochester band fuses country and reggae at The Westcott Theater on Saturday

Review: Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad channels their inner Grateful Dead in their groovy set Saturday night at The Westcott Theater.

Although the lineups for some of everyone’s favorite festivals -- Coachella, Bonnarroo and Sasquatch! -- have been revealed, the blustery Syracuse weather reminds us that festival season is still yonder. Rochester-based Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad attempted to bring that festival atmosphere to The Westcott Theater Saturday night with their self-proclaimed "relentless reggae" sound.

Photo: Chris Janjic
Aaron Lip (left) sings and Dylan Savage plays guitar with Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad at The Westcott on Saturday.

The band, which has played nearly 800 shows since the 2006 release of their debut album Slow Down, is well acquainted with the festival circuit. Their heavy touring schedule and life on the road inspired their most recent album, Country. The album is -- you guessed it -- a rootsy country-influenced exploration complete with slide guitar, banjo and harmonica replacing the band’s signature dubby psychedelia. A hint of reggae influence still remains in singer/bassist James Searl’s bouncy riffs. Perhaps an iTunes review put it best, calling it “a weird sort of stoner-country fusion.”

Naples, N.Y. band The Prickers anticipated the Americana throwback as they opened up the show. The rambling opening number wasn’t enough to capture the short attention spans of the mainly teenage crowd, but the band gained momentum as more patrons arrived. The set soon became cluttered as the six members of the band frequently soloed over one another. Several guests were invited to the stage, including Searl and multi-instrumentalist Aaron Lipp from GPGDS, as well as a random freestyler who embarrassingly struggled to rhyme over a bluegrass-style jam. The Prickers would have benefitted from some thoughtful minimization.

Then GPGDS took the Westcott stage, opening a two-part set with the bouncy crowd favorite “Nothing Comes Easy.” The first half kept the crowd’s feet moving with reggae-tinged hillbilly stompers and provided plenty of slow jams for snogging teeny boppers. It was obvious who the band was channeling after a rousing rendition “New Speedway Boogie” and a few jammier songs toward the end of the set.

“Ya’ll give it up for the Grateful Dead,” said Searl after the cover. “They turned America into something.”

GPGDS returned after a short break to reveal the dubbier side of the band through an accentuation of bass and psychedelic keyboards provided by Lipp. Searl, guitarist Dylan Savage, and the group’s newest marksman, Dan Keller, traded off vocal duties and solos as the crowd grooved to the funky tunes. Keller stood out in particular with his relaxed guitar-playing, vocals and alto saxophone skills. His soaring solo in “Love You More” was a highlight as the band’s chemistry coalesced and the audience exploded with enthusiasm.

GPGDS remained true to the relentless facet of their sound as one reggae jam bled into the next. The dwindling crowd around the two-hour mark signaled that the lengthy set wasn’t for everyone. Still, the band insisted on entertaining their remaining fans and spreading the peace and love with an encore performance in their home away from home.

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