Skank away the greys of the day
Live Report : “Skank away the greys of the day” @ Shibuya Club Quattro 2015.10.08
The Skatalites as a band have been around over 50 years. They’ve also just released a new album, ‘Platinum Ska’, which came out this month in Japan. Try to name another band that has been around 50 years and is still playing and recording. Sure, there’s the everlasting Rolling Stones, maybe The Beach Boys, you may even consider The Moody Blues. But, the point is, The Skatalites, despite being separated for some years in between, are in pretty exclusive company to exist as a band this long. To be sure, the current incarnation of The Skatalites is vastly different than the original 1960′s band. The current Skatalites do still include founding member, Lester Sterling on alto sax as well as longtime Skatalites collaborator and Queen of Jamaican ska, singer Doreen Shaffer. The rest of the band consists of members who joined at various times throughout the history. Each new player however, was personally selected by past members to continue the legacy of the band. So, while the current band will never be able to replicate the original Skatalites innovation or vibe, each member in the group has a clear love and respect for the original Jamaican ska sound and a passion to continue a legacy. This comes across in the playing and demeanor of all involved.
More than 50 years ago The Skatalites were on the cusp of something fresh and exciting. They were shaping a genre that would effect the music world for years to come. Today, The Skatalites are more about carrying on a tradition than innovating a new one. They’ve got a huge catalog of beloved, classic, genre defining ska tunes and that’s exactly what the older, seasoned crowd came to hear on this night.
The evening kicked off with Japan’s own ska pioneers, The Ska Flames. With over 30 years in the ska game themselves, The Ska Flames know a few things about rocking a party. Led by the eternally cheery, Yukata clad Hirokazu Ise, The Ska Flames always bring, well, the fire. I’ve seen The Ska Flames a few times before. Their live show always provides maximum vibes and leaves those in attendance in a state of jubilation.
Playing together for over 30 years is quite an accomplishment in itself. This dedication and pure love for ska music always finds its way onto the faces of the band on stage which then inherently infects the audience below. While their warm-up set was a bit short compared to their usual fare, The Ska Flames rewarded fans with news of a recently completed album and with it the return to the stage for a small tour which includes their annual year-end ska party. No doubt a big inspiration to the Ska Flames when they started, our headlining act, The Skatalites with their daunting milestone of 50 years, may indeed be a feat the Ska Flames reach themselves one day.
The Skatalites played for a little shy of 2 hours, playing out both classics and more obscure ska, rocksteady and reggae infused jams. The band eased into their set with a few laid back slower tracks and kicked it up from there. They dropped a jazzy rendition of the 007 theme song, gave us their popular “Freedom Sounds”, then welcomed out Doreen Shaffer to sing on a few tunes. Queen Doreen, despite being in the music biz for over 50 years, or more likely because of it, still has great presence when given center stage. The crowd, almost on cue, raised their energy level to show respect to the ska legend as we were taken on a trip back to the early sounds of Jamaican rocksteady for 20 minutes or so. She sang some fan favorites including, “Simmer down”, “My Boy Lollipop” and “Sugar, Sugar”. It slowed the tempo of the set down, but no one in the crowd seemed to mind. Doreen is a living legend of ska music and a Skatalites set wouldn’t be complete without a few tunes from the Queen.
From there it was full steam ahead. The band was ready to give the audience their money’s worth and make them move. The band’s younger brass section which includes Azemobo Audu on tenor saxophone, Andrae Murchison on trombone and Travis Antoine on trumpet bring a lot of much needed energy and excitement to the band. In the second half of the set each was given a chance to solo, show off and go on tangents. While 80 year old Lester Sterling is still no doubt the front-man and the star of the band, his playing technique and soft demeanor on the mic can’t keep up with the best and brightest in music today. That’s where the young guns of The Skatalites fill the gap. The band’s varied set and makeup create an interesting mix of old songs and new songs, seasoned players with younger ones, fast tunes with slower ones. When taking in a live show of a 50 year old band, which includes such a storied history, a time slot of at least 2 hours plus is really needed to appreciate all that The Skatalites were and still are.
The set seemed to fly by and before long they were playing their signature smash “Guns of Navarone”, then welcoming members of The Ska Flames up on stage with them to play a jam or two. It was a bit of an awkward affair with each member not really knowing when to jump in or what to play. Both groups seemed to show great admiration for each other however and once their little jam session got going it became difficult to end. As the sound died and members from each band drifted off stage, the old legend, Lester Sterling remained, treating us to a quiet little sax solo and reminding us that while ska music and its incarnations may have changed a great deal in 50 years, he was one of the reasons it all began.
*Photos taken from October 5th Osaka show.