By Faith Ryan
The Who: The Duppy Conquerors
The Where: Sally O’Brien’s Bar & Grill, in Somerville
The When: March 18th, 2013 at 10:30 PM
Sally O’Brien’s Bar and Grill is not exactly what I expected, and so I can’t help but hesitate as I walk through the door, out of the quickly falling snow, and across the threshold. Am I sure I’m in the right place? From the pictures and videos on the Internet of the band I’m here to see, a Bob Marley “tribute band” called The Duppy Conquerors, it always seemed like they were a band who played in a well-sized venue, with a big crowd. If the venue wasn’t large, though, it certainly had looked like it should be bigger than Sally O’Brien’s, a small bar in Somerville. The place is split in two; with one half of the room being taken up by a long bar and the other half littered with a handful of tables and chairs. Up in front of all these tables, just a few feet from where I stepped in, are what looks to be a set of drums, a keyboard, and a seemingly innumerable and unidentifiable amount of other musical equipment. Maybe I am in the right place, after all.
I move past the crowded and rowdy bar—there’s a Celtics game on—and into the less-populated and significantly quieter table area. I snag a table in the back for myself, letting the quiet conversations around me wash over me as I set my bag down and pull out a notebook. Every once in a while, the murmurs are interrupted by shouts of anger or glee (depending on the score or the ref’s call) from across the room, and as people move in and out of the bathroom at the back, the dimness of Sally O’Brien’s is briefly illuminated before things fall back into darkness again.
I check my watch—it’s 10:25 PM, five minutes before the show’s scheduled to start—and then look around the bar, searching for a familiar face of one of the band members. At first, I don’t see anyone that I recognize. But then, as my eyes continue to adjust to the darkness as well as focus on the faces at the front of the room, I know for sure I’m in the right place. Among the half-visible figures shuffling around up front, I recognize Carol Namkoong, keyboardist for The Duppy Conquerors, from pictures and videos I’ve seen online. Through the gloom, it’s hard to recognize any of the other figures shuffling about; they could either be band members, fans, or owners of the bar. I’ve only just taken note of her when another member of the band comes up to me, seeming to appear out of thin air: Sarah Mendelsohn, the drummer for the Conquerors, whom I interviewed just a week ago.
“I didn’t expect you to come because of the storm,” she calls over the noise from the bar, setting down her drink—a Guinness, which seems to be the drink of choice here, considering no one else seems to be drinking anything else. We exchange pleasantries for a moment before we both lean back and survey the room.
“I know everyone here,” she tells me with a smile, looking around the immediate area. As I follow her eye, I can’t help but believe her. There are about thirty people in the establishment in total, and more than half of them are residing where I am and doing what I’m doing—sitting quietly, talking a little, and waiting for the music to start. “Except there’s one guy I don’t know,” she admits a minute later, looking toward a man lingering rather unsteadily by the bar across the room. “He’s a little creepy. And he looked drunk when he came in,” she adds with a laugh.
We look forward, watching as other members of the band set up their various instruments—I can spot a trombone and an electric bass among the black shapes—and she apologizes for the delay in the show. “Our guitarist almost always arrives at the last minute,” she explains, “and we’re waiting for the game to end,” she adds. Her voice is almost swallowed by the roar of noise that erupts from the bar. “There’s forty seconds left, but that could take twenty minutes,” she says, not sounding happy about that possibility as she glances down at her watch. As the game continues, she lets me know of a change in line-up for the band tonight: “Our trumpet player is a sub. He’s good,” she says, but it’s clear that there will be something missing without their seasoned regular. Beneath the noise of the bar, my ears begin to pick up on low bass notes and a few brief chord progressions on the keys. Namkoong’s voice floats out across the bar as she sings, alluding to the brewing snowstorm outside that I’d forgotten about, “Well, the weather outside is frightful…” More people are beginning to filter in now, and as the game draws to a close, so does the noise at the bar. The band continues their warm-ups and sound checks, and in parting, Sarah tells me with a smile, “You won’t be able to see me, but you’ll be able to hear me.”
And she’s right. As the band crowds around the front of the bar, and the lights dim even further for proper concert ambiance around 10:45, I can’t see her at all. The people from the bar have moved into the tabled area, and now I have shoulders and heads to look over; with the drums squished in the far corner, the best I can do is catch a glance of her every once in a while. True to her word, though, I hear her.
The band kicks off the moment they’re ready, with no fanfare or announcements—and they don’t need any. Everyone is clustered before the musicians now, and it’s easy to tell that they’ve been here before, that this isn’t their first—and won’t be their last—Marley Monday. Lead vocalist Curtis King begins with “So Much Things to Say,” launching into the song with the vigor of his voice and the support of his bandmates. While performing, the band all stands very close together. True, there is not much room to move, but watching them, I get a sense that they work as a unit. They aren’t nine separate musicians, but one united group of people. Each instrument—be it vocal or material—works in sync with the rest of the band. There are no endless solos or outlying low or high notes too far off the charts; each member of the band adds in their voice or skill with an instrument to the others. In total, a soulful, friendly, and familiar atmosphere is created.
“Here we go again on a Marley Monday,” King calls out between songs. It seems the Duppy Conquerors still haven’t quite figured out how to market themselves as well as they’d like, for he continues with, “We’re a Bob Marley tribute band” before heading into the second song: “Guiltiness.” In this song, and throughout much of the set, the female voices supplied by Namkoong and Mendelsohn bring a nice contrast to King’s deeper vocals to round out the melody. As the night goes on, both the band and the crowd only seem to become more involved with the music. It doesn’t take more than a couple songs for a few individuals to move away from their tables and start dancing, and they aren’t alone for long. While some, like me, stay at their tables, the majority of the bar’s patrons are up and moving through songs like “Is This Love” and the perfectly-placed “Coming in From the Cold.” The band happily welcomes these eager audience members; even lead singer King dances along with them at points between verses.
From the start of the night to the finish, well past midnight, the Duppy Conquerors put on and keep up a lively show. Though they play for hours, churning out songs one after the other, they never look or sound tired. In fact, as time passes and we all move further and further down the setlist, it seems like the band becomes more energized instead of less. The Duppy Conquerors are an impassioned bunch of people who pour their heart and soul into their music and their performances. When they’re on stage, you can just feel how much they love Marley’s music, for that love is turned into something tangible in their expert renditions of everything from his greatest hits to his most unknown tracks. Despite their skill at performing and their love for the music, Mendelsohn did previously admit in our interview that one of the problems facing the band is how to market themselves.
Earlier, I put the phrase “tribute band” in quotations, and here’s why—because while they do play only music by Bob Marley, The Duppy Conquerors do not consider themselves a tribute band. “We obviously are not look-a-likes,” Mendelsohn explained to me when I interviewed her. “I mean, there’s more white people in the band than there are black people.” She wishes that wasn’t the case, but since that is the way the band came together, she doesn’t mind the unbalanced racial ratio within the band. When addressed with the idea of labeling themselves as a “cover band” instead of a “tribute band,” Mendelsohn comments: “It’s funny. It is [Bob Marley]’s music, but to us, it feels like…we sort of treat it as our own. Except for when we do the hits that we have to do all the time, it doesn’t feel like a cover band or a tribute band.” Mendelsohn herself admits to “hating” look-a-like tribute bands. The Duppy Conquerors, she says, “is an eclectic band. I think it’s really cool that we’re not a tribute band, but we’re trying to figure out how to market that, because we do play his music, but we’re not your traditional tribute band by any stretch of the imagination.”
While this mild identity crisis continues to be a sticking point for the band, it appears that, for the time being, it doesn’t matter as much as what the band and their audience gets out of their music. And after being an audience member for an entire night, I can say with certainty that this trouble with labeling will not hold the band back. They have the discipline, talent, and drive to turn The Duppy Conquerors into whatever they want it to be. For now, they are a fantastic Bob Marley tribute band. Whether they end up changing this description is up to them, but what really matters at the end of the day is how they put on a show. And The Duppy Conquerors put on one hell of a show.