by Nancy E. McCarthy
Syracuse-based Root Shock is a popular reggae-inspired band fronted by founding members vocalist Jessica Brown and guitarist/singer Phil Grajko plus keyboardist Brian Lauri, drummer Tyre Outerbridge and bassist Elliot Jarvis. The group plays their original music on the Syracuse club circuit, in venues up and down the East Coast and performs in numerous large events including the Rochester Lilac Festival, Great Blue Heron Music Festival in Sherman, NY and the Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival in Pittsboro, NC.
Root Shock was formed by Brown and the group’s original bassist Bill Eppel in 2012 (Eppel left the band in 2020). Grajko, who was playing in a local reggae band when he met them, joined soon after. “Bill had a deep appreciation of roots reggae that I also shared and Jessica’s vocals were undeniably great, so I decided to start working with them,” Grajko said.
After adding more players to round out a full band, one order of business was to choose a name. “We brainstormed and I believe an old band member brought ‘Root Shock’ to the table,” said Brown. There are different meanings for the term root shock – including the botanical definition. They didn’t realize until after they decided on their name that root shock can also mean the emotional trauma that a person experiences when his or her environment is devastated.
“I definitely related to the definition and I also knew our lyrics and stories fit with the definition,” said Brown. It was fortuitous that “root shock” would brand them and their songs so well. “Our music is supposed to help and encourage those who have gone through something difficult. It’s meant to lift peoples’ spirits and bring them some joy,” she explained.
Brown’s own personal root shock was the profound loss of her mother to ovarian cancer. Brown turned to music as her therapy. Writing, performing and recording meaningful music became important to her then and continues today.
One example is “Sweet Reunion,” a love song she wrote about her mother, melding wistful lyrics and haunting vocals with an energetic, upbeat melody and tempo. The song was included in the band’s self-titled first album released in 2016. Root Shock has since released an EP (“Many Paths”) in 2018 and a single (“Waves”) in 2019.
John Tierney, a Syracuse music writer and a fan, can attest to the healing powers of Root Shock. The group first crossed his radar in 2017 when he was in a spiritual and emotional funk. “I had always loved reggae music, it has a way of lifting one’s spirits – well mine anyway – and I wondered if there was a reggae band around,” said Tierney. He Googled “reggae music and Syracuse” and found Root Shock which was playing a show that weekend.
“The place was packed and there I was feeling so tired inside and they opened with ‘Come Alive’ and that is exactly what I did from that moment forward,” said Tierney. “Their music is like medicine to me.”
Brown grew up in the Thousand Islands Region in northern New York, the youngest of four siblings. Her first memories were of singing. She and her mother sang in church and Brown wanted to be a singer from an early age.
In 2008, Brown moved to Syracuse and attended Onondaga Community College in Syracuse as a music/vocal major. Two of her siblings lived in Syracuse and her mother was undergoing cancer treatment there. School, the hospital and her job as a cook and barista at Funk ‘n Waffles were all in close proximity to one another.
When her mother died in October 2008, Brown, just 20, was devastated. Her grief was the catalyst to leave school to focus on a singing career. Funk ‘n Waffles, a hip food and music venue, turned out to be an ideal training ground. Brown learned how a music club operated behind the scenes and owner Adam Gold invited her to perform as a guest vocalist with his own band Sophistafunk on the Funk ‘n Waffles stage, at other venues and even on some touring dates. Brown met and sang with a ton of musicians. Bill Eppel was one of them. Eppel, Brown and Grajko would eventually form Root Shock.
Grajko, a Syracuse native, comes from a close-knit family. Since age 10, when he began playing guitar, Grajko was immersed in music. His parents supported his interest with private lessons (and now regularly come to Root Shock shows).
Grajko studied classical guitar at Onondaga Community College and took a semester of music industry studies at Northeastern University in Boston. He got his bachelor’s in theology at Gordon College in Wenham, MA in 2006. “In 2015, I started studying jazz and classical guitar under a local legend, Gordon Moore, who has become my mentor and who I still see every week,” said Grajko.
The Root Shock sound
“We’re certainly not just a reggae band, even if that’s how we began,” said Grajko. “We’re not one type of band, and anyone who’s been to a live show knows that.” Root Shock’s unique sound is a blend of the band members’ individual musical influences. Brown draws from neo-soul, R&B and jazz and admires vocalists like Chaka Khan, Erykah Badu and Nina Simone. While Grajko listens to everything from Miles Davis to Beethoven, his first love is alternative rock like Rage Against the Machine and Deftones. “Tyre played drums in church and also toured in the metal/hardcore scene extensively, Brian is steeped in the jam band world of Phish and the Grateful Dead, Elliot loves progressive rock like Dream Theater and Rush,” Grajko added. “These vantage points bring a combination of elements to the table that creates a lot of diversity in our sound.”
Brown and Grajko are the lead vocalists and main songwriters. They take their rough songs (typically lyrics and a melody with a chord structure) to the band and the players contribute to the development of the song by creating their own parts.
“Their songs are always engaging and familiar even at first listen which is not an easy task! Plus they pack places and have an energetic show,” said musician Charley Orlando, also a talent buyer for Funk ‘n Waffles. “I admire the work ethic and the discipline it takes to perform the songs perfectly every time. Plus, I think the harmonies and overall musicianship from each player is top-notch.”
Jarvis is the newest Root Shock member. The bass player joined the group in early 2020 shortly before COVID shut live performances down and recording came to a halt. These days, the band is back on track. In addition to a robust show schedule, Brown said the current focus is getting into the studio and releasing new music. Root Shock released a new single “Ain’t Gonna Break” and video in May with more to follow.
“I honestly believe the best is yet to come,” Brown said.
Root Shock’s music is available on Spotify and Apple Music. View videos on their YouTube channel. Follow Root Shock on Instagram and Facebook. Visit rootshockmusic.com for more information.