On Friday February 24, 2017, The Skatalites returned to Brooklyn to play at Brooklyn Bowl. Having been a Skatalites fan since the early 90's when I first began listening to ska in South Florida, I only became familiar with the band's music from burned CDs. Remember those? It was basically a mixtape on CD - and no, I'm not talking about the type of albums that Chance the Rapper releases. Of course, burned CDs didn't have a track listing, so I didn't know many of the song names, I just knew that this jazz-infused reggae was different than anything I'd ever heard.
Little did I know then that ska music actually came first and was rooted more in Caribbean calypso and jazz: an integral part of ska. I think it's important to note that ska came before reggae, because most reggae does not contain horns and is slower than ska, and that reggae is on the down beat while ska is on the up beat. Either genre makes use of guitars, bass and both have pianos and organs. Making the distinction shows the differences, even though now, reggae is used to encompass almost all music from Jamaica, and then classified into sub-genres.
I grew increasingly interested in music that was underground or not mainstream, including bands from Jamaica and England and Japan. I attended the very first first Warped Tour, and also became very fond of newly-formed ska-jazz groups like Skavoovie and the Epitones, the Slackers, Mephiskapheles, the Toasters and the New York Ska Jazz Ensemble, most of whom were based in New York City on Moon Records. It inspired me to learn to play trombone and form two different ska bands of my own that went on to release three albums and play with many big name bands on tour along the East Coast.
Now, living in New York City, I attended the first Apple Stomp and countless ska shows. But, until tonight, I'd only seen the Skatalites perform once before in Florida, so to have the opportunity to see them again is one of the joys of living in a city like New York.
As headliners, the Skatalites opener was Organically Good Trio from Boston, MA, who, at first glance, appeared to be a four-piece with no bass player on stage (that I could see), though a bass line was definitely heard. They later announced to the audience that their percussionist was a guest, making them a three-piece after all: guitar, drums and organ. (Get it, ORGANically Good Trio? They did have a Hammond B3 organ with a leslie cabinet.) They were founded by Slightly Stoopid keyboard player Paul Wolstencroft, and their Facebook page does show four people. Whatever, don't overthink it. Just go with it...
Just before the Trio took the stage - slightly later than scheduled - there were a few people bowling but most of the crowd was huddled near the bar, grabbing drinks and mingling. And the dance floor was completely empty... that is until the Trio took the stage. It was a simple request by the group to the crowd to come fill the floor and start dancing, but that's all it took, and everyone did just that.
Within seconds of the first song's opening, people rushed to the front of the stage and began dancing - small groups at first; by the end of the first song, a simple glance to the rear showed that there was a considerable amount of people. The audience loved the guitarist's finger tapping and the effect he used that made his guitar sound like a saxophone, and the drummer and organist had amazing solos.
As the band kep playing, the large crowd continued to move near the stage, flowing from the standing area, to the bar and onto the bowling lanes. The audience felt the good vibes throughout the entire night, and it was a chill atmosphere amongst all. There were no bouncers or security standing between the stage and the crowd, who left bottles of water and purses and belongings on the stage while the Skatalites sound-checked.
The Skatalites took little time setting-up and launched the show with their countdown from 10, as they always do, while a quick glance to the back of the room now showed it was even more packed than before. As soon as the music began I saw immediate dancing, with cell phones out taking pictures and livestreams inundated with a wall of brass sound, even though I only counted three horns - ... but I digress.
The second song was the James Bond Theme, which is an oldie for the Skatalites, and the crowd ate it up. The new horn section was amazing with extremely fast playing and range, and they made great replacements. I say "replacements," because only two living members remain, and only one was there this evening: Doreen Shaffer, 'Queen Of Jamaica Ska.
The Skatalites seem to be one of those bands that will live on forever, continually replacing members - like Menudo - and in that way have become a brand, and show no signs of slowing down. They have their own hits, they are releasing new music, and there's no shortage of reggae and ska covers they can play, such as Simmer Down by the Wailers, which they covered.
Their current keyboardist/organist is actually their current manager and, while their original alto sax player and founding member Lester Sterling is still alive, I did not see him this night. Though, there was an older gentleman dancing on stage with a young girl, and there was quite a bit of family there with the Skatalites, so I believe there are still roots in place to keep this band going for some time. There was great love for Brooklyn as well. The Skatalites used their microphones for more than just singing, and made sure the crowd knew how much they love Brooklyn. And they told us over, and over, and over.
Written By: Marc Quadagno