Rochester’s Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad and Albany’s Red Square have a strong relationship. The reggae-based jam band played its first shows at the live music venue a few years ago.
“They were growing as a club, learning how they wanted to run things, and we were learning how we wanted to do stuff,” said bassist James Searl from Rochester, during a rare break from touring.
The band still plays the venue at least once a year, including tonight’s performance, and has developed a strong following in Albany because of it.
“At first we had never really been to Albany, and didn’t know much about it,” Searl said. “Now more people are coming that are like regulars — they liked the music for the same reason we liked the music. . . . Now it’s going and seeing friends.”
Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad
When: 8 p.m. today
Where: Red Square, 388 Broadway, Albany
How Much: $15 (ages 18 to 20); $10
More Info: 465-0444, www.redsquarealbany.com
By now the band has friends across the country, and even overseas (in 2007 the band played a three week tour in — where else? — Jamaica), thanks to relentless touring — last year they logged 180 shows.
In fact, this year might be the first time in the band’s five-year existence that things are actually slowing down on the performance front. Although touring is still a constant, when it comes to shows they’re picking and choosing a little more.
“I think we’ve gotten a little more strategic,” Searl said. “Instead of playing every single spot, we’re going to choose the place that worked out best and try and consolidate it a little bit more, which is nice. It also gives us more time to be creative and work on studio stuff, which we haven’t had the opportunity to do for the past three years.”
The band’s first and only album, the independently released “Slow Down,” was released in 2006. At the time, Giant Panda (the name comes from the Tom Robbins book “Another Roadside Attraction,” which featured the Giant Panda Gypsy Blues Band) consisted of founding brothers Matthew (guitar, vocals) and Christopher O’Brien (drums), along with Searl and guitarist Dylan Savage.
Since the album’s release, pianist Rachel Orke and organist Aaron Lipp have entered the fold, adding a new dimension to the band’s traditional reggae groove that is reflected in the new songs the band has written since then. And there have been a lot of new songs.
“We have two different studio sessions plus a live album we’re working on that should see the light of day pretty soon,” Searl said. “When you go three years with no album, it leads to a lot of songs being written and taking shape in lots of different ways.”
“Slow Down” offered up a mix of bright dub rhythms and melodies and life-affirming lyrics, while at the same time showing the band’s socially conscious streak. The new material is along the same lines, but delivered by an older, wiser band, according to Searl.
“We just want good songs to be recorded; we want them to be simple, something people can sing along with to help them through their day,” Searl said. “People can expect more of that, but this is a deeper groove band working together. There’s a lot more chemistry, a lot more evolution in the playing, between the players. And the new songs I think are pretty acute to what is happening in the world right now.”
Giant Panda has also been doing its part to practice what it preaches. In January, the band’s members converted their van to run on used vegetable oil, a change that’s taken some getting used to.
Running on grease
“It was the first step we could think of, beyond how we try to be conscious in day-to-day life,” Searl said. “It’s still kind of infantile learning how to make sure it faithfully works right — give it another five or six months; we’re getting there. The other problem is our vehicle is our livelihood, and the grease car is an unregulated business — it’s not like going to a gas station and getting a consistent fuel type.”
Thanks to the band’s good-time vibes and social message, its audience ranges from metalheads to punk rockers to jam band fans, and everything in between.
“I’m surprised when people come up, who’ve never listened to reggae . . . and say, ‘A friend of mine in California told me you really have to go to a show in Albany to see the Giant Panda people,’ ” Searl said. “With that being said, we’re extremely eclectic, and that shakes the biases, shakes the genres right off people’s shoulders.”