You may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife, and you may ask yourself, “how did I get here?”
Or, you may find yourself tightening the laces on a pair of steel-toed, oxblood Doctor Martens, pulling half-inch suspenders over your shoulders. You may ask yourself, what choices led me here and what could I have done differently.
Should I have ditched ska when the more marketable rap-rock supplanted it as MTV flavor of the month in the late nineties, maybe hopped on the emo wagon a decade ago and rode it to respectable indie Rockville? Was the option of crewing up with some tough guys and getting into hardcore ever open to me? Should I have followed the rest of my generation and accepted the grimy embrace of metal and facial hair? You may find yourself at a scooter rally or on a SHARP facebook group. You may say to yourself, my God, what have I done?
Psychiatrists refer to these problems as ska-related anxiety.
The typical diagnosis is a Trojan Records compilation and a stoned viewing of The Harder they Come. Predictably, one builds up a tolerance for such remedies, and each return of the sickness demands a stronger shot of dope. The remedy for my considerably advanced case of ska anxiety came unexpectedly, in the form of a trip to Cleveland to watch what’s left of the Toasters play at the Grog Shop last Saturday.
I imagine that a Clevelander would experience a trip to Columbus as a journey to some
kind of Twilight Zone where things are a lot like what you’re used to but the people have been replaced by robots. For a Columbus person, heading to Cleveland is a psychedelic hellride down Alice’s rabbit hole to a mind-warped Gotham City with every conceivable social ill cartoonishly distorted past the point of reason, an urban funhouse mirror where you’re likely to experience stark revelations of your deepest soul. As soon as Shandi and I hit town, we used the bathrooms in a Cleveland Heights Wal-Mart that was randomly strewn with piles of returned merchandise and were pulled over on the way out of the parking lot for having a busted tail light. Such an unwelcome intrusion adds an important element to the Cleveland experience: a reason to drink, a reason to let sanity slip from your grasp and surrender to the merciless, jangling dance with death that waits for you in the Mistake on the Lake.
The Grog Shop is tucked into a trendy corner along a strip of nice looking restaurants and night spots in Cleveland Heights. We parked a quarter mile down the street and, figuring our bad luck with the law was over for the night, broke into a bottle of cheap champagne. We got to the bar a few minutes before the first band went on.
The band was called All Over the Place. My expectations sank as a ragtag group of teenagers took the stage and the frontman, a scraggily bearded kid in glasses and a flannel, announced to the crowd that the band was seventy percent new members. Nothing creates a bad vibe for a show as well as a band apologizing for their poor performance before the first song. Rock stars don’t apologize. The Stones never even apologized at Altamont.
Once All Over the Place started, a miraculous transformation swept the crowd. Scores of young kids, college freshmen, kids with black marker X’s drawn on their hands, guys in porkpie hats from the thrift store, sprang suddenly to life and started skanking across the Grog Shop floor. My face lit up. The mood in the place immediately elevated shot up about five levels. It was incredible. There was a local band on stage and numbers of young people were unselfconsciously enjoying themselves, dancing despite the heckling snobs sipping beer in the back of the room. I felt like I had been transported thirteen years back in time to when I was young, when everything outside of Saint Louisville, Ohio, was pregnant with excitement. The main difference between this gleeful crowd of kids skanking in a ferocious circle pit and the kids from back in the nineties was that back then we wore much baggier pants. Truth is, the skinny jeans look way cooler.
My ska anxiety began to lift, bubbling away in the effervescent joy of dancing, horns and guitar chops on the offbeat. All Over the Place didn’t play the kind of music that I was used to. It was a new hybrid I hadn’t heard before, ska flavored indie rock. I’m out of touch with new music enough to imagine that this style could come to dominate the new landscape of ska if the nineties revival sweeps it back into the spotlight. After all, Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake played ska flavored pop-punk, and Madness and the English Beat played ska-flavored new-wave, so a weird beast born of ska and indie rock seems like a logical extension. The All Over the Place set was, as the pre-show disclaimer prepared us for, sloppy at times. But I’ve never held sloppiness against a band. Their greatest fault was their lack of energy and confidence. With a name like All Over the Place, you would expect more energy and movement. All the energy in this set was provided by the crowd.
Between bands, the house music was all pop-ska stuff from the nineties. No 2-Tone, none of the classic Jamaican stuff.
At one point, “Same in the End” by Sublime started playing and after singing along with the first line I realized that dozens of dudes all around the room were singing along; nobody raising their voices to sing along with each other, just a bunch of disconnected guys simultaneously singing along with the same song at medium volume.
The Mulligans took the stage next, clad in sharp black outfits and white ties.
They had a solid, tight sound, danceable third-wave ska in the Pietasters vein that sounded like they had been playing together for years. Toward the end of the set they kicked in the distortion pedals and played a few tunes in more of the ska-punk style. I liked the earlier stuff better, but one thing that the throwback Buck O’Nine songs on the house speakers taught me is that the nineties stuff is retro-cool now and nobody needs to be ashamed of ska-core anymore.
With the help of a couple tall boys of PBR and a shot of vodka, The Mulligans had obliterated whatever was left of my anxiety. There was nothing left to hold me back from enjoying the show. I took a place up next to the stage monitors and watched the Toasters sound check. The website for The Toasters’ thirtieth anniversary tour cautioned that some of the faces may have changed over the years. Most of the guys on stage looked to be about my age, which means they must have been infants in the early eighties when Rob Hingley came to New York City from England and started a band based on the 2 Tine sound popular in his home country, started a record label, the infamous Moon Ska Records, to release his band’s albums, and initiated what would subsequently become known as the third-wave of ska.
The crowd never stopped moving for The Toasters. They shouted along with “Two-Tone Army,” and oi-oi-ed with “East Side Beat.” Hingley drank Bell’s Two Hearted Ale and gave a shout out to the Occupy protesters before they closed with “Don’t let the Bastards Drag you Down.” Considering the enthusiastic crowd response when Hingley merely mentioned the cover art to Dub 56, I was surprised that they didn’t play more songs from that album. They stuck mostly to songs from Skaboom and Bastards. One of the highlights for me was dancing with Shandi to their classic version of “Run Rudy Run.”
The set ended (After the obligatory encore. The Toasters came back on stage after the bass player exhorted the crowd to chant “Shit” in unison), and Hingley took a seat over at the Merch table. I got to line up with the Cleveland ska kids and buy patches that said “Rudeboy,” and “Rudegirl” from one of the legends of third-wave ska. Shandi drove us down the dark, quiet freeway back home to Columbus. I was full of PBR, vodka and whiskey, considerably star-struck; I had been infused with excitement from the kids, thoroughly rocked by the bands, and I was looking forward to breaking into the bag of Funyuns we had picked up at a gas station on the way up to the show. My ska-related crisis was resolved, and the Rob Hingley’s immortal words from “Naked City” felt as true as ever:
There’s a lot of bands in the naked city, and we’re just one of them
There’s a lot of bars in the naked city, and we’ve been thrown out of every one of them.
There’s a lot of ways to dance in the naked city, but tonight there’s just one!
Ska, Ska, Ska, Ska!
For more pictures or to tag yourself, check out Shabdi’s Face book album here.