It’s easy to react cynically to whatever white reggae band comes through town, especially after having spent the last two decades or so in Southern California, but the Aggrolites was a difficult act to resist this past Saturday night. They exist apart from the bro-fi third-wave ska of Sublime and the mosh-friendly punk of the Voodoo Glow Skulls, tapping into the pre-Marley reggae and soul sounds of the ’60s, which they’ve played since they originated in 2002, as a backing band for Derrick Morgan. And they actually pull it off. Academic issues of cultural appropriation and market over-saturation aside, the Aggrolites proved themselves an excellent bar band (and that is not a put-down at all), able to play to its audience and remain true to itself.
With no opener to warm up the crowd, they jumped into two tracks, “Mr. Misery” and “Funky Fire,” from their self-titled second album and exuded an appropriately goofy mood throughout, powered by singer Jesse Wagner’s wide grin and Otis Redding-style vocals. Keyboardist Roger Rivas fueled the sound with his Hammond organ, which he told me after the show was incredibly difficult to transport. For listeners, it was worth every pound, because his jams are a significant part of what sets the Aggros apart from their horn-driven peers. Their song “Countryman Fiddle” served as a mission statement: “I need more soul with my music. I got to have reggae, reggae music. I don’t need no countryman fiddle. I need a real cool sound.” They tend to write lyrics about reggae music itself, as if to argue for the wisdom of their career choice.
Other highlights included “Firecracker,” a choice cut from their newest LP, IV, complete with an R&B guitar riff that could have appeared on an Average White Band song. Banking on audience participation, they encored with “A.G.G.R.O.” and a slurred version of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” which one inebriated audience member continued to howl a good 30 seconds after the band stopped playing.
I overheard someone in line for the bathroom say, “These guys are really good. I’m actually kind of surprised they’re here.” But the intimacy of the Mercury Lounge, compared with their recent performance at the West Beach Music Festival, actually worked in their favor. Anyone with the inclination could have stood within arm length of the microphones, and a few skaficionados in the front spent the whole set skanking, which in its most basic incarnation is the Jamaican version of “twisting.” It was like having a live ensemble in your best friend’s decked-out living room. In all, Saturday night was not altogether dissimilar to a normal Santa Barbara party, except with a remarkable band, better beer, and a couple more fedoras than usual.