Skavoovie & the Epitones
with Metro Stylee, the Hives, and Blue Beat Cartel
The Back Room • March 20, 1999
For me, Saturday night was easily the most anticipated night of SXSW. I’d finally get to relieve the withdrawal pangs I’d been feeling for over a year by seeing Skavoovie & the Epitones again! The Boston-based trad-ska heroes used to hit my town at least three times a year, and I quickly became addicted to their high-energy live performances. Alas, their touring schedule changed, so I was delighted to find I could get my fix in Austin! Couple that with an opportunity to finally see Metro Stylee, the high-octane “soul garage ska” outfit from NYC, and I was happy to hop a cab out to the Back Room, well outside the downtown area (where most of the SXSW activity took place) in suburban Austin.
First up on the bill were the Los Angeles-based Blue Beat Cartel, a melodic, upbeat 6-piece combo with a smooth look. They had a nice sound, mixing a little bit of soul and ’70s-jazz in with the ska riddims, and a tight horn section that carried the band. Their singer has a very strong voice, which he showcased by performing some very loungey (if slightly cheesy) vocal gymnastics. The band is obviously talented, but as their set wound down, I couldn’t help but feel that they needed to find their own way — they just aren’t doing anything a hundred other bands aren’t doing. They’re young, though, so I imagine that, given some time to grow, they could be a force to be reckoned with.
I’m not sure who made the decision to put (as the festival guide called them) “lo-fi Swedish thrash rockers” the Hives on this bill, but they should probably be swatted lightly across the fanny and sent to bed with no supper. They seemed completely out of place on this smooth ska bill, and indeed, I could only take a few minutes of them before retreating into the next room to await Metro Stylee. They may be fine in their context, but I definitely wasn’t ready to deal with them at this show.
If the Hives were the penance I had to pay for Metro Stylee, though, they were worth it! The band met in a huddle near the center of the stage, and after a quick “whoa team,” charged into an impressive set of soul-laden ska that was damned near perfect! The band completely put their all into their performance, playing with passion and intensity as they stayed in constant motion throughout the set. The horn players even used wireless mics to allow them to be all over the stage, a simple tech decision that sets them apart from most any other ska band — usually, horn sections are rooted in front of their mics! What really set Metro Stylee apart, though, was the fact that they genuinely seemed to enjoy performing together — the entire band had huge smiles on their faces throughout the set. This internal harmony really shone through musically, as well; the band played off each other well, and seemed unified throughout the set. I especially enjoyed the vocal harmonies between lead singer Tricia Verdolino and alto saxophonist Jane Germano, the beefy, soulful horn lines from Germano, tenor saxophonist Erok, and trumpeter Eric Gray that powered tunes like “Destroy,” and the mid-set cover of the ska classic “My Boy Lollipop” that was as sweet and poppy as the title implies, with a hip hop break as the Tootsie Roll center of the tune. All in all, a nearly flawless performance that left me hungry for more!
When Skavoovie & the Epitones hit the stage with a rousing “Aquaman” that had the band “swimming” all over the stage, I realized that it had been too damn long since I’d seen them! Every time I’ve seen them, I’ve gone away thinking “they can’t possibly get better than this,” yet the next time I catch them, they completely blow away their previous performance. Part of the reason for this is that they refuse to just let the older songs rest on their laurels. Tunes like “Subway Joe,” are always going to draw a cheer from long-time fans, but as they continue to fine tune them over the years with enriched background vocals and horn lines, they’re also always going to sound new and fresh. And speaking of new and fresh, the boys signed to Shanachie during the conference, and gave the enthusiastic crowd a generous sample of what to expect from their initial release on the label in a diverse set of tunes ranging from the western-tinged “Boyo” (penned by “Venice Shoreline” Chris Murray), to the jump-blues oriented “She’s Texas Size” (with a great, swingy horn line), and the “Day Tripper”-esque “Coffee Connection.” That’s not to say the old favorites went by the wayside, though, as a spooky “Frog Spirit” and a rambunctious “Old Man of the Mountain” were major highlights.
Skavoovie capped off the evening with their cover of Danny Elfman’s “Batman Theme,” and even though I’d been tipped by saxophonist Jon Natchez before the set to be on the lookout for something out of the ordinary during the song, I don’t think I was fully prepared for exactly what came next. Midway through the song, Natchez disappeared from the stage, only to reappear a few minutes later clad in what looked like a Mexican wrestler’s mask, playing an alto and a baritone sax AT THE SAME TIME! It was a hilarious, one-of-a-kind moment that was the perfect ending to a perfect festival, and my chilly wait for a cab back to the heart of the festivities was warmed by memories of what was easily the best show of the conference. Don’t miss Skavoovie and the Epitones when they hit the Southeast this month!