Photos by Photos by Michelle Axstin, Dya Khalsa and Allana Taranto
When people think of Boston music, it's usually the J. Geils Band, The Cars, or Aerosmith that spring to mind. What many people aren't aware of is that Boston is home to the most prolific ska scene in the nation today. Sure, California has a great scene, but the state is huge! New York City has a big scene, but Boston still has a much higher ska-per-capita ratio. We can boast several nationally known ska bands that have helped put Boston Ska on the map. Our biggest ska export: the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who just released their sixth full-length CD, Let's Face It. People who don't know what ska is (see sidebar), or for that matter, don't consider the Bosstones ska, now hear the word ska thrown around thanks to their hit song "The Impressions That I Get" getting splashed all over radio and MTV. For those with an interest in or some knowledge of ska, you know that Boston is home to Bim Skala Bim, The Allstonians, Skavoovie & The Epitones and Thumper. These bands have had an enormous impact in the ska community that reaches far beyond route 128. Each band sports at least one full-length CD (Bim has seven) and has scored no fewer than eight appearances on national ska compilations.
For best results, experience ska live! The most challenging part of recording ska is capturing the energy, excitement, fun, and karma that can only be experienced at a live show. Luckily for all the fans, Skavoovie spent four months last year on the road and this year they expect to spend six months touring the States. Bim has been to Europe three times, and Thumper just recently returned from a three-week tour of the Eastern US with another planned for June. As many will tell you, the live show is what makes a good ska band great. So let's take a look at several Boston bands, their backgrounds and immediate future in Boston Ska.
Bim Skala Bim For many people in Boston, Bim defines ska and has been doing so since 1983, although they started using the Bim moniker in 1985. Now with six studio and a live album under their belts, they still play about 150-200 shows a year and keep the crowd skanking. Bim's music covers many musical genres: reggae, ska, calypso, world beat, rock, pop and punk. They are equally at ease doing "Simple Song," a slow instrumental, as they are playing "Johnny O'Reilly," a hyper-fast, heavy-sounding punk(ish) song. This year and this album bring changes in the Bim camp with the departures of longtime trombonist Vinny Nobile and percussionist Rick Barry (both with the band for 10+ years). While the arduous task of filling the big shoes left by Vinny has been achieved with the lively chops of Mark Paquin, the band has skanked on sans deep percussion and now presents a less world-beat oriented and more gritty guitar sound. The new album, Universal, demonstrates their stalwart depth and professionalism. From the poppy opener, "Pete Needs a Friend" (possibly about masturbation), to the reggae-flavored "Rings of Saturn," Bim eases through the styles, giving the listener a case of happy feet.
Skavoovie & The Epitones This Newton-based band has been storming all over the United States ever since their 1995 debut, Fat Footin'. With half the ten-member band on brass, they provide an unmatched super-phat horn sound. Their early promise was recognized quickly by critics and fans alike. In 1995, The Epitones were named one of Boston's ten best bands by a leading newspaper and followed that up in '96 with a take-no-prisoners trip into the semi-finals at the WBCN Rock & Roll Rumble (the first time any ska band made it past the preliminaries). While awaiting the early May release of their highly anticipated follow-up album, Ripe (also on Moon Ska), Skavoovie has been treating their fans to tasty new songs that kick serious skASS! Still very much young at heart, their playfulness and humor materialize in songs that pay tribute to favorite pastimes. "Aquaman" and "Japanese Robot Skank" are inspired by cartoons and television, while "Frogspirit," "Plague," and "Phobus" force listeners to puzzle over what could've inspired these gems. With almost half of the songs instrumentals, their soulful riffs and horn-driven, silky sway make it easy to get lost in the groove. Be sure to catch Skavoovie & The Epitones' record release party at The Paradise on Commonwealth Ave. in Boston on Saturday, May 24th with The Amazing Royal Crowns and The Planet Smashers (from Montreal).
The Allstonians When it comes down to heart and soul and the love of ska, these guys have got to be first. Fronted by the two Knucklehead brothers (Nigel [keyboards] and King [vocals]), the Allstonians' old skool style brings happiness to all who cross their path. With the thorough exploration of hundreds of old Jamaican records etched in their minds, The Allstonians captured those elements and presented them with stunning results on their 1994 full-length CD Go You! (Moon Ska). This June will mark the arrival of their long-awaited sophomore effort, The Allston Beat (Moon), with 15 tracks that usher in a new edge that fans will embrace as a welcome growth. Shouldering nearly half the songwriting burden, Nigel relies on personal experiences in such songs as "Brighton Memories" and "Six Years," and creates graceful instrumentals like "Alex Beam," named for a Boston Globe columnist. With many of the lyrics and feelings from both albums rooted in the neighborhoods of Boston, it provides another good argument that Allston is, in fact, the center of the Boston, nay, the World's music scene. Together, the band members have had over three decades of ska experience, most notably in Mr. Cranky (a highly influential late '80s band), Steady Earnest, The Hi Hats and Skavoovie & The Epitones. The powerful horn section not only drives the solid rhythm section, but also claims a few writing credits, such as "Jimmy," about a self-centered individual and one of the catchiest instrumentals of late: "Can't Say."
Thumper Now let us explore the darker, heavier side of ska. Ska-core, as it is called, is hardcore-edged music that builds around, or even overpowers, the subtle Jamaican SKArchitecture. Somerville's own Thumper has been pounding out mind-altering music that accentuates their loud, drum-driven guitar sound. These veterans have released two (now out of print) EPs (1992's Rabbit Wreaking Havoc and Another Day in 1993), leading up to their 1995 full-length CD entitled No One Left The Disco Alive (Elevator Music). Thumper is not for the faint of heart; if you like the soft, slow grooves of '60s Jamaican music, LOOK ELSEWHERE! But those who can take it will see an impressive, powerful live show, complete with their famous American Ninja-man suits. Thumper is currently finishing up their next album for Elevator Music which is tentatively slated for a fall release.
Though these may be the most well-known bands outside of Boston, there are several others that deserve recognition for their contributions to the scene. While Plate O' Shrimp, Mission Impossible, 007, and Ska'd For Life were instrumental to the development and propagation of Boston Ska throughout the '80s, I am going to focus on ska bands that have impacted the scene in the past few years.
The Hi Hats They've been playing their brand of soul-laced ska since 1990, and their heavier reggae feel has made them a staple of the live scene. Some of Boston's best ska musicians were at one time or another in The Hi Hats. While several bands and members came and went in the early 1990s, the Hats persevered through the strong determination of Jeff Scannell, lead singer and guitarist. Last year saw their debut CD, Ska Got Soul (Titan Music), emerge out of years of hard work, and again they garnered another nomination for outstanding Boston ska band. The Hi Hats still play Boston regularly and are always a great time.
Steady Earnest One of the best ska bands ever to come out of Boston. Their songs were catchy, easy to sing along with and most importantly, compelled you to dance. Although technically "on hiatus," this band put out two strong CDs in their 2+ years together. Out of Line and Take It! (both available from DVS Media) captured the ska-soul-rocker energy that won them the hearts of many in Boston. Several members are now in The Agitators, a dub/reggae band that carries a bit of the bite of the ska bug.
Beat Soup They've made thousands dance without forcing ska on people. Quite often their catchy riffs and smart songwriting win over those who don't even realize the great music they are dancing to is, in fact, ska. They also have a tendency to gravitate towards places that brew their own beer. (Do they know something?) Currently mastering a CD that features most of their popular set songs, Beat Soup expect to have it available in the fall.
What does the future hold for Boston Ska? Boston has a knack for growing great ska and it looks like that tradition will continue. Here are a few bands to be on the lookout for.
Big Lick Self-described as "a funked up, ska-core, with a twist of Jazz band," Big Lick has been playing all around Boston for the past 3 years. They currently have a great self-titled seven-song CD EP out. Definitely not old skool, but gets you rocking in the house! Following a June tour to Florida, they will go into the studio to record a full-length album. Big Lick have been building a big following and deserve an even bigger one.
Big D & The Kids Table The name may be hard to remember at first, but once you see them, you won't forget them. These guys put third wave on the map with their mix of ska, punk, hip hop, and funk. A band with lots of energy, excitement and enthusiasm, they put their all into every show. They just released a split CD with Boston punk band Drexel.
The Pressure Cookers Although they've been together for a relatively short time, the members of this band have been active in the ska community for years, most notably as three members of The Skavengers. With a definite old Jamaican feel to the music, they demonstrate an amazing style featuring two vocalists that harmonize as well as contrast each other nicely.
Want to learn more about Boston ska? Visit www.bostonska.com and sign up for the Boston Ska Emailing list (or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org). The emailing list is sent out weekly with the latest information about what Boston's ska bands are doing, as well as what shows will be heading toward Boston. Also available at www.bostonska.com: band pages and links, tour dates, area ska radio shows, listings of ska-friendly stores in the greater Boston area, and all your personal ska needs including a link to the original Boston Ska web page at http://www.ziplink.net/~upsetter/ ska/index.html./ Of course, you may also email me with any questions at Dude@tiac.net.