with Hepcat, Mustard Plug, the Slackers, and the Gadjits
Jannus Landing, St. Petersburg, FL • 2.14.98
I can’t think of a better Valentine’s Day present than a show like this. Since the Skatalites are the first and still the best ska band the world has ever known, they alone are reason enough to get excited. Coupled with Hepcat, who are without a doubt the greatest of the modern-day practitioners (and who only come to the East Coast about once every three years), you have a bill that would have the most jaded of ska fans in ecstasy. Add to that three strong, diverse national acts, and it’s no wonder that Jannus Landing was packed despite the chilly weather.
Kansas City’s answer to Hanson, the Gadjits, started out the evening with a set consisting mostly of punkier versions of the songs of their new album, At Ease. I was mildly disappointed to hear them playing what sounded, to my ears, like fairly standard Midwest ska-punk, as I’d been impressed by the rootsier, more soulful sound on their record. Still, they had a lot of energy and enthusiasm, despite the fact that they seemed a bit nervous.
Hepcat’s Alex Desert strode out onto the stage next, to introduce New York City’s own Slackers to the crowd. A very enthusiastic Marq Lyn strode to the center of the stage and proceeded to work the crowd into a frenzy, starting the show by having the crowd scream “motor city” at the count of three. The band charged into one of the best sets I’ve ever seen them do, setting a smooth, traditional ska groove that lasted throughout their set. The crowd and band alike seemed to be having a great time. Amazing horn work was the order of the set, especially from saxophonist Dave Hillyard, with tunes like “2 Face” and “Redlight” sounding even better than ever. By the time they finished the set with “Pedophilia,” the Slackers’ entire horn section was parading around through the audience like a New Orleans jazz band!
Mustard Plug bounced out onto the stage next, dressed in trademark matching outfits. Lead vocalist David Kirchgessner immediately exclaimed that the band was “honored to play on such a great bill,” and the band showed their respect by launching into an energetic set full of their distinctive ska-punk tunes. The crowd roared excitedly as they launched into “Box.” Towards the end of the song, one amorous fan even threw his underwear up on the stage, in response to which one of the all-male band’s members replied “men’s underwear! I’m getting’ lucky tonight!” The crowd seemed to adore the Plug, shouting along to tunes like “Mendoza,” and screaming their approval for the band’s tribute to ska’s dancehall roots, a medley of their own “Too Stoopid” and Young MC’s classic rap hit “Bust A Move.” Still, the real highlight of the set had to be the Plug’s ska-punk cover of the Verve Pipe’s “The Freshmen!”
The Slackers’ Marq Lyn returned Alex Desert’s favor by trotting out onto the stage to introduce the one and only Hepcat, as the crowd went berserk. It had been entirely too long since these boys had been to town, and the crowd let them know it. Hepcat immediately acted to show the crowd what they’ve been missing. Their set was pure magic from start to finish! Frontmen Desert and Greg Lee led the multi-ethnic band with an unbeatable combination of sweet harmonies and incredible dance steps. They must be the smoothest men in the world! The band had an amazing aura of energy about them that got the already excited crowd doubly revved up. Virtually the entire audience sang along and cheered wildly for Hepcat classics like “Hooligans,” “Bobby and Joe,” and “Marcus Garvey,” and I even heard a lot of unison on the new tunes from their just-released latest, Right On Time, including my new favorite song “No Worries.” Covers of “Train to Ska-ville” and Toots and the Maytals’ “John James” rounded out a set that was close to perfect. After seeing this performance, I’m once again convinced that there is only one band in the world that can stand up to Hepcat’s prowess.
Lucky for me, that band was up next! The legendary Skatalites rose to the occasion with a set that was pure heaven. Starting with their traditional countdown to freedom, which starts with 10 and ends in everyone yelling freedom, the band beyond compare proved yet again why they are the masters. Each member of the band is the absolute master of his instrument. I was thrilled simply to have the honor of watching and hearing tenor saxophone god Roland Alphonso ply his craft mere feet from me, especially since he’d been absent due to health reasons the last time I’d had the privilege of seeing the band. Watching the Skatalites play, though, you can almost forget that most of the band is pushing 70. Lloyd Brevett’s hands dance across his ancient stand-up bass with the agility of a man a third his age, yet with all the skill that his decades of mastery have earned. Meanwhile, alto saxophonist Lester “Ska” Sterling looked as mischievous as a teenager as he danced up a storm on the set-closing “Freedom Sounds.” In the interim, the crowd was treated to a set loaded with classics such as the Don Drummond compositions “Eastern Standard Time” and “Confucius,” “Latin Goes Ska,” and their covers of the “James Bond Theme” and “Guns of Navarone.” In addition, a mid-set trio of tunes featured the woman that trumpeter Nathan Breedlove referred to as “the First Lady of ska.” Original vocalist Doreen Schaffer’s crystal-clear, beautiful voice made old hits like “You’re Wondering Now” and the Bob Marley tune “Simmer Down” shimmer and shine as if brand new.
It’s telling that the Skatalites’ set saw many members of the bill’s other four bands in the crowd dancing along with the paying customers (which included many members of some of Florida’s best-known ska bands). The entire music community owes these great men a debt that can never be fully repaid. The chance to see them and show respect in person should never be passed up. Still, if you ever get the chance to see them on a bill like this, it’s four times as special. Every band rose to the occasion and gave their all, and I’d be hard pressed to think of a show that could top this one.