Brent Berry's long, strange trip takes a lengthy layover in Lawrence.

Roots Radical 

Brent Berry's long, strange trip takes a lengthy layover in Lawrence.

Amsterdam may be a long way from Lawrence, Kansas, but Brent Berry -- whose reggae-encrusted tribute to the Dutch capital offers a vivid description of its charms -- is always there in spirit.

"It was the best place in the world for music for me," Berry recalls while preparing his "morning bread," a fragrant blend of pot and tobacco. "I'm a street musician. That's how I got my start, playing my drum on the street and singing. You can do that anywhere in Europe, and if you do it well, you can make money a lot of places, but no money like Amsterdam."

Berry's education as a street musician began in 1992, when he apprenticed for Sun Ra Arkestra alum Matthew Brown Jr. on the avenues of Westport. By the time he got to Amsterdam five years later, Berry had absorbed the skills necessary to survive, pounding the hell out of his congas and singing in Nigerian, Swahili and Spanish. His routine brought in plenty of spare change, and he soon found himself in a comfortable routine.

"I'd get a hundred bucks in two hours," he remembers. "I'd go get me a big fat sack, go pay up at the hostel, drop my backpack off, get a nice dinner, more buds and drink mochas until everything closed. I'd do that every day, until I woke up one morning: 'I gotta get outta here! I've been doing this for two months.'"

The local police agreed. Berry was busted for busking and deported. (Customs officials wondered why a shopworn musician with no credit cards had a pocket full of money, and Berry answered honestly.) He eventually found himself back in Lawrence, one of the numerous places Berry calls home, where he was tapped for conga duty in the Band That Saved the World. Content as a sideshow skin pounder, he had few notions of forming his own group. It started almost by accident.

Berry's career as a frontman began two years ago, when he -- backed by seminal ska outfit the Secondhands -- blew away a Liberty Hall audience with a cover of the Toots and the Maytalls classic "5446." For the attendees, it was reggae heaven, but for Berry it was a revelation.

"I didn't really ever yearn to be a lead guy," he explains "I've played congas my whole life, and been a good side guy, but I've always paid attention to what's going on in the front."

On hand at Liberty Hall was Z'gwon,th studios owner Colin Mahoney, who was so impressed he invited Berry and company to record the song the following day. Though everyone involved was happy with the results, Berry's transient nature got the best of him. He took off for Taos, New Mexico, where he planned to pursue a solo career. He spent most of the time playing small coffee shops and penning new material on borrowed back porches.

"I had all these great songs," Berry says. "I knew they were good songs, but I needed a great band to make them."

Little did Berry know that a great band was waiting for him back in Lawrence with a record deal in hand. Secondhands member Tom Johnson had sent a copy of the "5446" demo to his group's label, Kick Save Records. The St. Louis-based company immediately offered to fund and release a Brent Berry album, but Johnson had no way of contacting his wayward pal. Eventually, Berry drifted back from Taos, phoning Johnson a few days later.

In November 2000, the pair got down to business, putting together material in a flash and recording it with backing by members of the Secondhands and TBTSTW. A few weeks later, Berry's first record, Inland, was complete.

Disc in hand, the ensemble played its first gig in a friend's basement -- not exactly the stuff of roots-rock dreams. But even then, the pairing of Berry and the Secondhands (later changed to Roots Crew) drew a respectable crowd, most of whom dragged their friends to the group's "official" live debut in a downtown Lawrence loft soon after.

"We broke the floor there was so many people there," Berry exclaims. "We broke the floor, no exaggeration. People dancing, going nuts; the floor was bouncing -- it could've broke and given way at any time -- but no one was going anywhere."

A buzz started brewing over Berry and the Roots Crew, which began playing regular local gigs sprinkled with out-of-town shows in New Mexico, Colorado, Indiana and even faraway destinations such as New York. Though Berry's sophomore EP, Livin' and Lovin', expanded the group's sound considerably, opinions remained divided. Berry and company were an undeniable concert draw, but critics took potshots at the act for what they felt was a generic approach to world music. (One ska-related Web site dismissed the outfit as sounding "like a Jimmy Buffet cover band.") These gibes were taken seriously by the Crew, particularly Johnson, who recalls being somewhat uncomfortable with the band's early efforts.

"I definitely felt like we were walking the line between cheesy and pretty cool," the bassist admits. "Because we didn't really know how to play the music yet. Anybody who's distracted by color, or if we're playing the real, authentic reggae or ska, is not really listening. I mean, we can't play 1970s reggae; it's going to sound like a bunch of kids from Kansas no matter what. But people who see us live won't think we're cheesy, because they'll know that we're not putting on airs, like we're some sort of reggae ambassadors."

A growing number of rootheads would agree. After a year and a half of steady work, the Roots Crew (Berry, Johnson, backing vocalist Rev Morris, drummer Ryan Hensley, guitarist Eric Johnson, keyboardist Stephen Leiker and hornmen Dan Pem and Chris Leopold) has jelled into a formidable unit. On May 10, the band will celebrate its 100th show, a testament to its ongoing popularity with area audiences. The Crew attracts an eclectic bunch, too, representing a wide, multigenerational demographic of music lovers.

"Frat boys, sorority girls, mothers, fathers, young kids," Berry marvels. "Everybody's welcome. People dig that; that speaks to people. This is not reinventing the wheel. It's just what I feel is right. I don't go out there trying to make it feel like a church every night, but that's my church."

Berry and company will be preaching to significantly larger congregations this summer, when they will open a number of reggae festivals and continue touring an ever-expanding region. For Berry, spreading the positive reggae vibe is particularly important in a new era of uncertainty.

"It's a very interesting time we're living in right now, an extremely volatile political climate, but I try to stay out of politics," the 26-year-old musician says. "What I'm trying to get at is not to fight a war or stop a war -- and this is genuine and honest -- I really want to make people happy. That's my goal. And with a lot of ammunition and big guns -- keyboards, basses, trumpets, trombones -- you can really get that message across in a very convincing manner. It really hits you."

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