SOJA’s benefit show makes Charlottesville a 'proud community'

Virginia-based reggae band played magnificent benefit show at the Jefferson


SOJA put on an uplifting, infectiously entertaining show at the Jefferson.

Courtesy SOJA

“I think what people don’t understand about what we do is when you’re up here every night, working our butts off, it doesn’t matter how fun it looks — it starts to feel like work, like a job because after all, it is. But when you get to play a show like this — a show when everyone feels good because what they’re doing is for a good cause — then it feels the way it’s supposed to. We’re a proud community — it feels right.”

Jacob Hemphill and the rest of SOJA greeted the Charlottesville audience with this message when they took the stage Saturday night at the Jefferson Theater. Hemphill — the lead singer — foreshadowed the rest of the show by opening with a lengthy address. He announced that all of the ticket sales will benefit the Heal Charlottesville Fund and all of the merchandise sales will be donated to funds benefiting hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. One of the musicians in the band — Rafael Rodriguez — is from Puerto Rico and received a rousing ovation to begin the show. 

The band followed the conversational intro with a steaming introduction to its new song, “Fire in the Sky,” a single off the album “Poetry in Motion,” set to be released on Oct. 27. Following this was “You Don’t Know Me,” an old timer and fan favorite. During the latter, SOJA showed what they were about, maneuvering around the stage and exploding in synchronized jumps as a steam cannon went off behind them. 

Bobby Lee — Hemphill’s right-hand man and SOJA’s bassist — showed off his stellar moves by rock ‘n’ roll kicking high above his head and jumping into splits. With every kick, the crowd engaged more and more with the band — a dance circle even opened up within the audience. A middle-aged man was wailing out on air guitar as a diverse range of personalities danced around him. The crowd was a wave, pulled back and forth by the music, crashing into one another and exchanging “sorry, not sorry” looks.

Even when the song ended and Hemphill began speaking to the fans again, the crowd kept moving. It was impossible to stop them. He spoke about the new album recorded in Dave Matthews’ studio here in Charlottesville, and was interrupted by a hometown cheer when Matthews was mentioned. Hemphill went on to talk about the city — “What people know now about Charlottesville is a misrepresentation of what it’s really like. Love and creativity is what Charlottesville is about.”

Hemphill’s inspiring message sent the band into the opening chords of an unreleased track called “I Can’t Stop Dreaming,” which was merged together with the slow-moving, dream-chasing “Lucid Dream.” As the opening trumpets began, the grin on Hemphill’s face displayed the happiness that was raining down over the crowd throughout the night. This was feel-good music.

The highlight of the show came during the arm-in-arm sing-along chorus of “You and Me,” which was followed by “Born in Babylon.” This was the first instance of Hemphill leaving his microphone and joining the crowd in singing the thundering, infectious lyric “And I’m telling you the fire’s hot / Can you see that smoke / Did you hear that shot?” 

He then jammed out with Lee as well as lead guitarist Trevor Young. All three were cloaked in a backlight that silhouetted their unique figures. Each had his own solo that resulted in passionate dancing, both from the musicians and the crowd. As Lee and Young went back and forth with their jams, their hair began to loosen up from its bun. They kept this look for the rest of the show and a key moment came later on during “Not Done Yet” when Lee jammed out on bass while swinging his dreads around in a Pete Townshend-esque windmill.

One of the coolest parts of the show was their appearance. Hemphill came out donning a baggy white T-shirt with his long dreads tied in a messy bun and an infectious smile. Meanwhile, Lee looked like he better belonged in Lynyrd Skynyrd — he staggered on stage wearing a denim vest covered with motorcycle patches over a white T-shirt picturing the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” The band was so diverse, and it worked so well.

This concert was about so much more than live music. There was a certain spirit in SOJA’s performance that only great bands can bring. Hemphill casually interacted with the crowd, explaining the real world events that went into the production of their music. His casual chatting echoed the messages from their lyrics to inform the audience of what his intentions were in each song. That being said, he leaves the interpretation up to the individual. The lyrics are magnifying — they’re meant to be seen through different lens and have different meanings. 

Not only did the whole band interact with the crowd, but they also played off each other. After “Born in Babylon,” Hemphill joked with Lee about the color of his Harley Davidson, and during “Not Done Yet,” Young moved up Lee’s microphone after he nearly knocked it over with his hair flips. 

The rest of the show consisted of fan favorites like the groovy sing-along tune “Rest of My Life.” During the chorus, Hemphill would sing, “If I could spend the rest of my life with my people,” and then urge the audience to finish his thought by crying out, “I would do it over and over again.” SOJA also introduced a new song, “Bad News” — one of the group’s most political songs to date. The song got the progressive group of young and old concertgoers chanting along. 

In an interview with The Cavalier Daily last week, Hemphill said that the song is trying to assert, “Look, we’re divided. We disagree on this ‘Donald Trump is the president’ thing. Okay, we get it. But how are we making anything better by screaming and yelling? Everyone preaches to their own choir, and no one gets s—t done. Now, more than ever … It's time to come together.” 

The Charlottesville audience seemed to get the message from “Bad News” loud and clear as strangers joined together to twirl, shuffle and rock to the swirling reggae and electronica blend of the tune. The show ended at 12:17 a.m. with an encore of the extraordinarily popular tracks “I Don’t Wanna Wait” and “I Believe,” during which Hemphill told the crowd, “Charlottesville, it’s your turn now.”

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