Jah Works just keeps going on

Reggae group's 15 years performing is far more than most bands manage

  • Jah Works performs Nov. 27 at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com.
Jah Works performs Nov. 27 at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place… (Handout photo )
November 26, 2009|By Sam Sessa | sam.sessa@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

Keeping a band together for more than a decade is no easy feat - especially if the band is full time.

But for the past 15 years, the members of Baltimore reggae group Jah Works have made a living by grinding out gigs around the region and recording with other local groups. They have released 10 albums, which have sold close to 100,000 copies altogether, and performed more than 2,500 shows. Tomorrow, they'll play Rams Head Live. Along the way, they have become fixtures in the area.

"They're leaders of the local reggae scene," said local event promoter Tim Walther. In 1997, Jah Works played the second All Good Festival, which Walther produces.

"About 1 [percent] to 5 percent of musicians can ever make a living on touring and doing what they like to do," Walther said. "It's a very difficult task. I've seen hundreds of bands come and go in the 15 years they've been playing."

Four of Jah Works' members met in college at Loyola in the early 1990s, and the group officially formed in 1994. Back then, it seemed like each of the guys came from a different musical background, singer and percussionist Eric Vincent recalled.

Vincent liked the indie rock scene coming out of Athens, Ga.; bassist Mike Hamilton was into New York punk; and original lead singer Scott Paynter loved reggae. That made for a sound that was, at best, eclectic - and at worst, all over the place, Vincent said.

"We weren't always well-polished," Vincent said. "This is a really forgiving city, thank God. We've definitely had our ups and downs."

For nearly a decade, Jah Works took just about every gig they could get, Vincent said. They performed their share of shows at small venues, in front of even smaller audiences.

One of Jah Works' strangest concerts was about eight years ago, when a fan who was also a doctor booked them to play what she called a "private office gig" near Bowie, Vincent said. When the band showed up, members realized they would be performing in the waiting room in the middle of the afternoon.

"It was hysterical," Vincent said. "We got there, and she literally wanted us to play in the waiting room. They were still taking appointments."

Today, there are a number of predominantly white reggae groups in the region. But when Jah Works first started touring, it was one of a very few, Vincent said.

"We'd go play a hard-core Jamaican dance-hall show and get some really, really hard looks," Vincent said.

In September, Jah Works released "Rewind," its 10th studio album. It peaked at No. 12 on the iTunes reggae chart, Vincent said, and has sold well online and at shows. It was the first album the band has recorded without Paynter, who left the group near the end of 2006.

Paynter had been the group's lead songwriter from the start but was burned out from recording and constantly touring. Losing him was devastating to the rest of the band, Vincent said.

"We weren't really sure what to do," Vincent said. "We were like, 'Is this the end?' "

The other band members decided to soldier on without Paynter. Taking cues from Hamilton, members put their heads together and came up with "Rewind."

" 'Rewind' was a big accomplishment," Vincent said. "It was probably the most cooperative album we've ever worked on."

In 2001, Jah Works founded its own recording studio in Charles Village, where it has recorded its last several albums. It also works with other local bands and is trying to break into music publishing. Though a few of the guys in Jah Works have gotten married and the band is playing fewer gigs than it used to, the group is still going strong, Vincent said.

"It still amazes me," Vincent said. "Every time we put out an album, I'm like, 'What if it's the last one?' But it's an unbelievable process."

If you go
Jah Works performs with Big Vizion tomorrow at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live.

Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com.

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