Thursday, June 14, 2018

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Matamoska!, Soul Radics!

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

This excellent imported rocksteady single was released last fall to coincide with Soul Radics' European tour, though upon their return to Nashville, TN, the band announced that they were going on "an indefinite hiatus." So, if this turns out to be their swan song, it's a pretty damn good one. "Two Devils" b/w "Stormy Weather" (Clear vinyl, picture sleeve single, Grover Records, 2017) is available in limited quantities in the USA from Jump Up Records and definitely worth picking up. Interestingly, "Two Devils" (powered by Dani Casler's smoky alto voice and the fantastic Radics musicians) is not exactly about regret, because all that cheating still feels mighty right. But there's still the sense that life could be easier/better with an active moral compass ("I've got two devils on my shoulder...wish I had an angel"). The choice to version the 1933 torch song "Stormy Weather" (most notably sung by Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, and many others) on the flip side seems like an apt one, as it's all about abandonment, unfulfilled desire, and a joyless life on hold ("When he went away/The blues walked in and met me/Oh yeah, if he stays away/Old rocking chair's gonna get me/All I do is pray/The Lord will let me/Walk in the sun once more"). You've got everything if you're lucky enough to have love, commitment, and fidelity with the right person.

I'm generally not a ska-punk fan--and based on this single, I'm not sure that Matamoska! really falls in this self-selected category (is it because of Jose Padilla's gravelly voice?)--but their "Beer Goggles" b/w "Doom Boogie" (Vinyl, picture sleeve single, Steady Beat Recordings, 2018) is a fantastic modern/Third Wave ska single. Naturally, "Beer Googles" is an extended, mid-tempo ska take of sorts on the best Homer Simpson quote ever: “To alcohol! The cause of...and solution to...all of life’s problems” (Matamoska!: "I'm living like a rat/'Cause you left me on the street/I've got nothing else to give/You don't want my company/Because it's two o'clock in the morning/I got my beer googles on/I've left them on/I want you back again/'Cause I've got my beer goggles on... It's not summertime/'Cause the living's not easy/I know that you will never be/Coming back to me..."). "Doom Boogie" is a terrific horn-driven instrumental (shades of The Toasters, Mephiskapheles, or The Scofflaws) that must pack the dance floor every time it's played live. Like the world outside depicted on the sleeve, this one's on fire!

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Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Duff Guide to Ska NYC Spring/Summer 2018 Ska Calendar #6

The Selecter in LA, 1980
Friday, June 8, 2018 between 6:00 pm and 10:00 pm

100% Ska at Otto's Shrunken Head w/Selections by DJ Ryan Midnight

Otto's Shrunken Head
538 East 14th Street (between Avenues A and B)
New York, NY
(No cover!)

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Friday, June 8, 2018 @ 10:00 pm

Dubistry

Silvana
300 West 116th Street
New York, NY

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Saturday, June 9, 2018 @ 9:00 pm

Dance Inna Bushwick w/Top Shotta Band featuring Tonto Irie, The Far East, Boomshot!, and selections by Grace of Spades

1239 Dekalb Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$10

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Friday, June 15, 2018 @ 7:00 pm

Reggay Lords, The Fuss, The Freecoasters, w/selections by Grace of Spades

El Cortez
17 Ingraham Street
Brooklyn, NY
$10/21+

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Friday, June 15, 2018 @ 10:00 pm

Caz Gardiner

Silvana
300 West 116th Street
New York, NY

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Saturday, June 16, 2018 @ 1:00 pm

Beat Brigade, Night of the Living Funk

Riis Park Beach Bazaar
16702 Rockaway Beach Boulevard
Queens, NY
Free!

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Sunday, June 24, 2018 @ 7:30 pm

The Toasters, Beat Brigade, Joker's Republic

Knitting Factory Brooklyn
361 Metropolitan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$15 in advance/$17 day of show
All ages

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Tuesday, June 26, 2018 @ 8:00 pm

NYC Ska Orchestra, Royal KhaoZ

Brooklyn Bowl
61 Wythe Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$10/21+

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Thursday, July 12, 2018 @ 6:00 pm

Brown Rice Family

Live at the Dumbo Archway
155 Water Street
Brooklyn, NY
Free!

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Saturday, July 28, 2018 @ 1:00 pm

Reggay Lords

Riis Park Beach Bazaar
16702 Rockaway Beach Boulevard
Queens, NY
Free!

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Friday, August 24, 2018 @ 8:00 pm

Fishbone ("Classic '80s/'90s line-up!), Oxymorrons

Brooklyn Bowl
61 Wythe Avenue
Brooklyn, NY
$25/21+

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Saturday, August 25, 2018 @ 6:00 pm

The Slackers Booze Cruise

The Liberty Belle
Board boat at Pier 36, 299 South Street in Manhattan
$30 in advance/$35 day of show
21+

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If you don't see a NYC ska show listed here, send us all of the details to duffguidetoska@gmail.com!
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Monday, June 4, 2018

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Pama International, Pama Intl v. Manasseh, Jackie Mittoo

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

In case you missed it back in 2006--when they were the first band in 30 years (!) to sign to Trojan Records--Pama International has reissued the nothing-short-of-amazing Trojan Sessions LP, as well as the (mostly) new Trojan Sessions in Dub, a track-for-track companion album with dubs by Nick Manasseh, who co-produced the original Trojan Sessions with Sean Flowerdew (Heavyweight red and black vinyl LPs/CDs, Happy People Records, 2017 and 2018). Trojan Sessions features a mind-blowing roster of guest artists, including the late Rico Rodriguez, Dennis Alcapone, Dawn Penn, Dave and Ansel Collins, Derrick Morgan, and Winston Francis (and at this point Pama International included Specials Lynval Golding on guitar, and Horace Panter on bass) on a boss collection of original material. Between the host of 1960s JA superstars and various musical styles of these tracks, this record brilliantly honors the history and spirit of Trojan (and its artists), as well as serves as a primer of sorts of Jamaican music, circa 1965-1972. I love the album start to finish, but several highlights include Rico on The Skatalites'-sounding "Disobedient Children"; the early "Liquidator" reggae "Neither High Nor Dry" with Dennis Alcapone; a sublime Dawn Penn on the dubby "Betterment Blues"; Dave and Ansel Collins make it sound like '69 on "It Ain't Funny"; Pama's singer Finny shines on the funky reggae "I Got So Much to Shout About"  and rootsier "One Step"; and Winston Francis on the rock-solid rocksteady "Fisherman" (which has echoes of "You're Wondering Now" lurking within). Once you're familiar with the tunes onTrojan Sessions, listening to how they're deconstructed and reassembled by Manasseh on Trojan Sessions in Dub is a real pleasure. "Disobedient Dub" in particular is stellar (love all the outer space effects, use of Rico's voice, and placement of sounds within the mix to create all sorts of aural distance), with "One Step Dub" and "Fisherman Dub" hot on its tail.

I don't know why it was so hard to obtain (I finally ordered it directly from VP Records after two failed attempts elsewhere), but The Jackie Mittoo Showcase EP (Black vinyl picture sleeve single, 17 North Parade/VP Records, 2018) was completely worth the wait and effort. Essentially, this four-track release presents some of the greatest tracks off last year's excellent double-CD Striker Showcase (which The Duff Guide to Ska reviewed here). These 1977-1978 cuts are prime, moody rocksteady/reggae Mittoo material (with his phenomenal soulful/jazzy Hammond keyboard lines floating above it all) from three essential albums co-produced by Bunny "Striker" Lee: "Disco Jack" and "Brain Mark" are off Hot Blood; "Earthquake" is from In Cold Blood; while "Drum Song" is on the original Showcase album. One can't have enough Jackie Mittoo in their collection.

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Duff Review: Maroon Town "Freedom Call"


Brixton Records
CD/LP/digital
2018

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Maroon Town dedicate their incredibly powerful sixth album Freedom Call to "the marginalised, the dispossessed, 'the other' because any of us could be in these categories--and many of us are" and reminds the listener that "freedom means having the confidence to express yourself, to live without fear, to not be judged by appearance or status or race or religion... freedom means celebrating the gift of life on this planet." These are heavy, profound, and highly empathic sentiments relating to seemingly intractable, global problems (we human beings still can't seem to find a way to treat each other with respect and as equals) that Maroon Town have transformed into extraordinary, uplifting songs full of fiercely good Skatalites-like ska or roots reggae combined with choice bits of rap and soul.

The central (and best) track on the album is the massive, should-be-a-hit "Freedom Call" ("I wake up this morning, but keep on dreaming away/I wonder if my baby is dreaming of me/Like the river, like the river flows/I gotta keep moving, to keep moving on"), whose rhythm section relentlessly chugs along like the biggest steam engine imaginable to Laurel Aitken's Rainbow City, while the horns sound out across the land, beckoning all migrants and refugees to climb on board to be welcomed to a new home (one of the great instrumental cuts on here is named "Maroc"). Its companion piece is the gorgeous reggae cut "Around the Fire" ("Jamming, feel like jamming/In the sunset, feeling free/This world needs some action/Singing together to bring us peace/Sister, gather your children/Wrap them in harmonies/Give your warm embrace"), which celebrates the simple and centuries-old tradition of people coming together to make music (one imagines the freedom train riders taking a break along a beach at night to sing songs of deliverance).

Guest Basque singer Fermin Muguruza (who formed the Clash-influenced ska punk band Kortatu back in the late '80s, which was featured on the first Skankin' Round the World comp from Unicorn Records) advocates for his people's self-determination in the urgent ska cut "Hope." The lovely and soulful "Harmony" makes a plea for something that should be obvious and desirable (but almost always escapes us): "Make peace priority/War only brings poverty/It would be good to see/A world living in harmony." The exquisite and devout reggae track "A Prayer" reminds one to thank Jah/your higher power of choice for all that is good in life, as well as to keep the faith during hard times. "Rebel" urges everyone to find their voice and collectively stand up for what's right, since it's the only way positive change will come about ("Life is hard, life is cruel/Not for those who set the rules/They set the rules to make us fools/We got to get smart, gotta stay smart/It's not easy, it's not cozy/Dumbing down to make us dozy/Wake up, no sleep, wake up!"--is that a "They Live" reference at the end of that lyric?). But not everything on the album is concerned with saving the world. The seriously funky and sensuous (and should-be follow-up hit single) "Get Up" is all about having fun and taking pleasure in being alive and dancing with someone else: "Hey there/Keep doing what you're doing/You're moving in the right way/We're gonna lose ourselves/I want us to lose ourselves forever."

In a world where we are almost overwhelmingly aware of the infinite ways humans can be cruel and unjust to each other, Maroon Town's Freedom Call provides some much needed inspiration to keep up the fight for all that's good and right.

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You might also be interested in reading The Duff Guide to Ska's review of Maroon Town's previous album, Urban Myths.

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Maroon Town dedica su increíble sexto álbum Freedom Call a "los marginados, los desposeídos," el otro "porque cualquiera de nosotros podría estar en estas categorías, y muchos de nosotros lo somos" y recuerda al oyente que "la libertad significa tener la confianza expresarse, vivir sin miedo, no ser juzgado por la apariencia, el estado, la raza o la religión ... libertad significa celebrar el don de la vida en este planeta." Estos son sentimientos pesados, profundos y altamente empáticos relacionados con problemas mundiales aparentemente intratables (los seres humanos todavía no podemos encontrar la forma de tratarnos unos a otros con respeto y como iguales) que Maroon Town ha transformado en canciones extraordinarias y edificantes lleno de ferozmente buen Skatalites como el ska o reggae de raíces combinado con pedazos de rap y soul.

La pista central (y mejor) del álbum es el "Freedom Call" masivo, que debería ser un éxito ("Me levanto esta mañana, pero sigo soñando/Me pregunto si mi bebé está soñando conmigo/Me gusta el río, como el río fluye/Tengo que seguir moviéndome, seguir moviéndome"), cuya sección rítmica resuena implacablemente como la mayor máquina de vapor imaginable en la Ciudad del Arcoiris de Laurel Aitken, mientras los cuernos suenan a través de la tierra, haciendo señas a todos los migrantes y refugiados para subir a bordo para ser bienvenidos a un nuevo hogar (uno de los grandes cortes instrumentales aquí se llama "Maroc"). Su compañero es el magnífico corte de reggae "Around the Fire" ("Jamming, sentir como jamming/En la puesta de sol, sintiéndose libre/Este mundo necesita algo de acción/Cantando juntos para traernos paz/Hermana, reúne a tus hijos/Envuélvelos en harmonies/Dale tu abrace cálido"), que celebra la tradición simple y centenaria de personas que se unen para hacer música (uno imagina a los jinetes del tren Freedom tomando un descanso en la playa de noche para cantar canciones de liberación).

El invitado cantante vasco Fermin Muguruza (que formó la banda de ska punk Clash-influenciada Kortatu a finales de los años 80, que apareció en la primera compilación Skankin 'Round the World de Unicorn Records) aboga por la autodeterminación de su pueblo en el ska urgente corte "esperanza." La encantadora y conmovedora "Armonía" hace un llamado por algo que debería ser obvio y deseable (pero casi siempre se nos escapa): "Haz que la paz sea prioritaria/La guerra solo trae pobreza/Sería bueno ver/Un mundo viviendo en armonía." La exquisita y devota pista de reggae "A Prayer" le recuerda a uno que agradezca a Jah/su mayor poder de elección por todo lo que es bueno en la vida, así como a mantener la fe durante los tiempos difíciles. "Rebelde" insta a todos a encontrar su voz y defender de forma colectiva lo que es correcto, ya que es la única forma en que se producirán cambios positivos ("La vida es dura, la vida es cruel/No para quienes establecen las reglas/Establecen las reglas para Haznos tontos/Tenemos que ser inteligentes, tenemos que ser inteligentes/No es fácil, no es acogedor/Estúpido para hacernos perezosos/¡Despertar, no dormir, despertar!"- es una referencia de "Ellos viven" en el final de esa letra?). Pero no todo en el álbum está relacionado con salvar el mundo. Lo realmente divertido y sensual (y lo que debería ser un éxito de seguimiento) "Get Up" consiste en divertirse y disfrutar de estar vivo y bailando con otra persona: "¡Hola!/Sigue haciendo lo que estás haciendo/Tú estamos moviéndonos en el camino correcto/Nos vamos a perder a nosotros mismos/Quiero que nos perdamos para siempre."

En un mundo en el que somos casi totalmente conscientes de las infinitas formas en que los humanos pueden ser crueles e injustos entre sí, Freedom Call de Maroon Town proporciona alguna inspiración muy necesaria para seguir luchando por todo lo que es bueno y correcto.

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Friday, May 25, 2018

Duff Guide to Ska Fast Takes: Dele Sosimi Meets Prince Fatty and Nostalgia 77, The Process, Hepcat vs. Victor Rice, Le Birrette, and Derrick Morgan, Charlie Organaire, and Dennis Alcapone!

(Reviews by Steve Shafer)

So much good music, so little time to digest and write about it all...

I just came across this phenomenal, mind-blowing mix of Afrobeat (hi-life, African drumming, funk, and jazz), and dub on Dele Sosimi Meets Prince Fatty and Nostalgia 77's You No Fit Touch Am in Dub (LP/digitalWah Wah 45s, 2016). Right now, this LP is on heavy rotation on my turntable (the ecstatic "Dance Together Dub" and trippy "I Don't Care Dub" in particular) and it should be on yours. Speaking of Dele Sosimi, he used to work with Fela Kuti, so I'll also take this opportunity to note that a month ago I picked up a vinyl copy of Fela Soul--an amazing, if unauthorized, mash-up of Fela Kuti's music with De La Soul's raps that came out a few years ago.

On the fantastic Who Is That Mad Band? and its great track-for-track dub companion Dub World (CDs/digital, Temple Gong Recordings, 2016 and 2017), Detroit's The Process play a wild, heady mix of '70s rock and roots reggae with new wave-synths and metal theatricality--all of which works surprisingly well. The band stands tall on their own with tracks like "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" which features the legendary (and late) Detroit rock guitarist Dick Wagner, "Mystery Babylon" "Dear Mr. Fantasy," and "Gypsy Wind." But then they have several excellent cuts mixed by On-U Sounds' Adrian Sherwood ("Time Has Come," "Return the Treasures") and David Harrow ("Fire Is Burning Version")--and others that feature Skip "Little Axe" McDonald (Sugar Hill Records' house band that recorded "The Message" and "White Lines" for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Tackhead, Dub Syndicate), Ghetto Priest, and the inimitable Lee "Scratch" Perry himself! The Process are yet another great act from this town that spawns them like crazy--Detroit again for the win!

Being the vinyl junkie that I am, I pre-ordered Hepcat's essential early Third Wave classic Out of Nowhere (which was never released on wax in the early '90s, since vinyl was on the way out then)--but the even more compelling reason to pick this up is the accompanying bonus album of stellar dubs by Victor Rice, Dub Outta Nowhere (to be honest, I like some of Rice's versions better than the originals). Highlights include "Dub Wit Me," "Dubvez," "Miss Dubgeniality, "Prison of Dub," and "Police Dub." (The pre-order includes an immediate digital download of both albums, to keep you sated while you wait for the real thing.)

Italy's awesome all-female ska/rocksteady/soul act Le Birrette released their debut album Gal Songs Only (LP/digital) earlier this month. A whole bunch of these tracks sound like could be off Jackie Mittoo's Evening Time ("Jamaican Night," "Let Me Stay," "Rise Up"), while others are wonderful vintage ska in The Skatalites/Potato 5 vein ("Wounded Man," "Eclisse," "Mantis"). I want the vinyl in my collection pretty badly, but the shipping from Europe is the same as the cost of the record (ouch!)

Jump Up Records and The Drastics' imprint Happy As a Lark have co-released a cool new 45 featuring OG Jamaican all stars Derrick Morgan and Charlie Organaire (backed by the Tectonics) on the 1950's standard "There Stands the Glass" on side A with Dennis Alcapone doing his deejay thing on the version on the flip side. Don't miss this little gem!

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

Shots in the Dark: The Toasters' "Frankenska"

The Toasters' Frankenska (Unicorn Records, 1990)
with cover art by Steve Friel.
Editor's note: Shots in the Dark spotlights so-called Third-Wave ska releases that should have been massive hits on the scene but, due to bad timing, poor luck, or a fickle record-buying public, were lost in the fray.

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The Toasters’ first live album Frankenska was recorded in the summer of 1989 during the band’s maiden (and mostly underwhelming) tour of the UK--and ended up documenting the brilliant core of the band that was forging on despite still reeling from the surprise departure of their frontmen the Unity 2 just months previously (trombonist Ann Hellandsjo and alto saxophonist Marcel Reginatto also left in their wake). Less than a year earlier, The Toasters had released their fantastic second album, Thrill Me Up, which had reached #54 on the CMJ college radio charts and was starting to generate lots of press and industry attention, and they were headlining sold out shows all over the country. Literally and figuratively, The Toasters were going places fast. So, the Unity 2's unexpected exit (they had been lured away by Warner Bros. to capitalize on the blink-and-you-missed-it hip-hop/reggae craze of 1989-1990) threatened to destroy all that The Toasters had accomplished up until that point. When we asked about this episode, Toasters’ founder, guitarist, and primary songwriter Rob “Bucket” Hingley told us that the Unity 2 had "cold-cocked" the rest of The Toasters and "disrupted the unit intensely."

Sean “Cavo” Dinsmore recently explained to The Duff Guide to Ska why he and Lionel “Nene” Bernard left The Toasters: “The simple answer is that we weren’t happy just being in a ska band anymore. We were much more into dancehall and hip hop by that time. We had already recorded “Shirlee” for a WB compilation (Funky Reggae Crew) as Unity 2 and had been offered record deals from both Island and WB. After we came off the last cross-country tour [with The Toasters], we played a sold-out show at The Ritz and there was an A and R guy there from Island. In the dressing room we were like, ‘What do you think?’ And he said, ‘I love it, but I only want to sign you two, not the whole band.’ After everything else that had been happening, it seemed like a sign from God. Of course, we still wrestled with it for a while, but it was inevitable. It was bittersweet for sure...No regrets at all, except I wish we had done the last few gigs that were on the schedule. We kind of left them in a tight spot. But it was so difficult because they were so clearly upset by it. Lionel and I just thought the road would be a nightmare for all of us if we went. Buck was very pragmatic and just wanted their asses covered, fair enough. But we couldn’t.”
A June 6, 1988 feature on The Toasters in New York Magazine, while Thrill Me Up was being
recorded (note that they refer to it by its working title at the time, Franken-Ska).

Indeed, The Toasters’ decision to embark on a UK tour and appear at the second London International Ska Festival was a Hail Mary of sorts, to shake off the Unity 2’s body blow and keep the band’s momentum going during a transitional period when they could just have easily broken up.

During a respite on that 1989 UK tour, Bucket told George Marshall of Scotland’s indispensable Zoot skazine, “We’ve been playing venues in town where people don’t even know who we are. We get a lot of letters from Europe, but I suppose they are just isolated pockets of fans...The ska scene’s further developed and not so underground in the States. Ska’s happening in the U.S. and it’s not just talk. It’s bigger now that it was during 2 Tone. We played in front of 1,000 people in Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco when we toured, and in New York we had 2,000 people in The Ritz [at a show that included The NY Citizens and Bim Skala Bim].” In a recent interview with The Duff Guide to Ska, Bucket added, “I was surprised how quickly the ska scene had deteriorated in the UK after the zenith of 2 Tone. Some of the audiences were light indeed, but then again most people had never heard of us and some wouldn't come and see us because we were ‘Yanks.’”

Notably, this tour and live album marked the first and temporary appearance of singer/toaster Coolie Ranx in The Toasters’ line-up (which at the time consisted of Jonathan McCain on drums, Greg Grinnell--who worked with the Unity 2 on their What Is It, Yo? debut album--on bass, John Dugan on tenor sax, Steve “Hex” LaForge on keys, Vince Fossitt of Buffalo, NY’s The Great Train Robbery on alto sax, and Buck on guitar and vocals). Bucket recently recounted how he originally encountered Coolie back in 1989: “Coolie was living in Brooklyn at that time. I had discovered him when we were auditioning singers, one of whom had been Andre from Mephiskapheles, by the way. A friend from S.O.B.’s passed me a copy of this 12” single “Roughneck,” which sounded to me like a much more energized version of Shinehead. So, I went out to Crown Heights and tracked him down, much to the amusement of the Yardie drug dealers who lived in his building. They were impressed by the wraparound shades, black bomber jacket, and Kangol...When I met Coolie, I had an all-black minivan with tinted windows. Whenever I showed up at Coolie’s place--which was actually in Bushwick now that I think about it--which was deep in the hood back in those days, the Jamaican Yardies were at first suspicious because they thought I was a Fed. After that, they took a shine to me, as there weren’t that many white folks in that neighbourhood at that pre-hipster epoch.”

The Toasters live in London on June 12, 1989:
Bucket, Coolie Ranx, and John Dugan (left to right).
“Before I decided to sign on with The Toasters, I was a dancehall artist,” Coolie told The Duff Guide to Ska. “I put out a few songs and had already traveled to the UK when I was introduced to The Toasters by Catherine Tobias. She was managing Shinehead at the time, but they parted company. At the time, my song "Roughneck" was playing on the urban music stations and she heard the similarities between Shinehead and myself. She sought me out and proposed management of me. She said The Toasters had lost their two frontmen and suggested I audition and do a small run with them to Europe for me to gain stage experience (she wasn't aware of my history of opening up for most of the reggae acts that came from Jamaica to do stage shows). I had just returned from England singing in Saxon Sound when all of this happened upon me.”

Coolie continued, “At the time, I was a dancehall artist doing ska and had no intention of staying in the scene. It was meant to be as a one-off tour with them and I would resume my work in dancehall. It really was culture shock for me.” He would not resume his role as the official and wildly popular front man of The Toasters until a few years later (Cashew Miles and then Pablo Wright were the interim singers/toasters for the band who appeared on This Gun for Hire and New York Fever). “I had just returned from living in London from 1991-1993. I was walking in New York City when I ran into [Toasters drummer] Jonathan McCain’s girlfriend. She said he was back in The Toasters and they were playing that night. I went to check them out the show--this was in 1993. Buck spotted me in the audience with my friend Natty and from the stage he began shouting out to me and reminding me of past shows we did. After the show, he came over and said he wanted to catch up and have a drink later in the week. We met for a drink at Blanche's and there he proposed I rejoin the band.”

The London International Ska Fest II flyer that was included in
every album mail ordered from Unicorn at the time.
Both the second London International Ska Festival (held at The Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park, London on May 27-29, 1989 with Laurel Aitken, The Trojans, The Deltones, Potato 5, The Toasters, Skaos, Floyd Lloyd, Skaos, The Hotknives, The Busters, The Braces, The Ska-dows, Mr. Review, Les Frelons, Spy Club, Arthur Kay’s Originals, and The Skandal on the bill) and the Frankenska recording at the Town and Country II in Islington, London on June 12, 1989 had been organized by Unicorn Record’s label head Mark Johnson, while the other Toasters’ dates around the UK were booked by RPM, which was run by several ex-members of 2 Tone act The Bodysnatchers. While George Marshall opined in Zoot that The Toasters’ performance wasn’t their best at the London ska fest, there’s no question that the band had all cylinders firing for the Frankenska recording.

While the Frankenska set list is loaded with classic Toasters tunes from Recriminations through Thrill Me Up, it also featured a small preview of the band’s next album in the form of “One Track Mind” (this one’s better than the studio version). Coolie confidently takes the lead vocals on “Go Girl,” “Don’t Blame Me,” and “Thrill Me Up” (and delivers some amazing toasting on “Run Rudy Run”), as if he had been in the band forever instead of a few months. The versions of “Ska Killers,” “East Side Beat” (check out Greg Grinnell’s hilarious Beastie Boys-like rap--swapping out the one usually done by Cavo during an instrumental break in the song: “I live on the outskirts of a place--East Flatbush/Hot like Texas and twice as dangerous/Every second of my life was a thrill/For a walk on the wild side, there’s a place--Brownsville/It’s hard to chill when they turn up the heat/Come on boys, do the East Side Beat…”), and “Pool Shark” are positively scorching. Even The Toasters’ roadie for that tour Steven “Big Steve” Carroll is heard from--he shouts “Matt Davis, special agent” throughout the album opener. I was fortunate enough to catch The Toasters several times in NYC in 1988 and 1989--those gigs continue to be some of the most amazing live shows I’ve ever experienced--and despite the unfortunate departure of some of the crew, the remaining Toasters more than hold their own on Frankenska; this performance rates amongst the Thrill Me Up-era band’s best. George Marshall concurred in his review of Frankenska for Zoot: “Despite a below par performance at Ska Fest II, The Toasters did enough on their European tour to make this LP worthwhile. It benefits from concentrating on their earlier material like ‘Matt Davis,’ ‘East Side Beat,’ and ‘Weekend in L.A.,’ making it a fans’ album with all three sure to get you dancing away in the safety of your bedroom. There’s even a giveaway poster for freebie freaks.”

Also on the bill that evening with The Toasters at the Town and Country II were the Potato 5 and The Deltones. A recording of the Potato 5’s fantastic performance that night was released as Five Alive on Unicorn Records and captured incredible tracks like “Spit ‘n’ Polish” and “Stopped by a Cop” that the band didn’t have a chance to record in the studio before breaking up late in 1989, after a difficult US tour (with gigs that included Bim Skala Bim and The Donkey Show). Bucket recalled that “Potato 5 was an awesome band. They had recorded that classic album with Laurel Aitken and some of their tunes like “Western Special” were excellent. We got on well with them and they had a relaxed vibe. Deltones were a bit shambolic, but they had great singers (Dill) and those shows we played with them knocking around in South East London were a lot of fun.”

A large free poster inside every LP!
By taking a big risk on this tour, The Toasters’ fortune finally changed for the better, as the band’s absolutely terrific live show was recorded for posterity, the tour put them on the radar overseas (and led to regular gigs throughout Europe and beyond from that point on to the present day), and on their return to the States, they connected with a major league domestic booking agency (which allowed The Toasters to further develop the US ska touring circuit and support all of local ska scene across the country--and lay the groundwork that would kick-start the massive, mid-’90s US ska revival). “As it turned out, that gamble paid off handsomely, as it raised the profile of the band immensely and we were able to tour in Europe consistently after that smash debut,” Bucket assessed. “It was a hot band and we blew most of the European groups away. Upon our return to the USA, we were promptly signed to Falk and Morrow booking, which was a huge agency. That helped cement the US touring and, hey presto, we were now an international touring act.”

The only bum notes about this release are that The Toasters never received any royalties for Frankenska (or any other Unicorn release of theirs, including Pool Shark and the Naked City comp) and the album was never issued domestically in the US. In the early 1990s, Unicorn’s Mark Johnson reportedly fled the UK for Turkey (and later Thailand) to escape the tax man and, in the process, absconded with what he owed to all the label’s bands. But given The Toasters’ previous experiences with other imprints and distributors who ripped them off or went belly up throughout the 1980s, it came as no shock(er) at all.

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Friday, May 11, 2018

Duff Review: DJ Spooky "Phantom Dancehall" (2018 RSD Release)

VP Records
Clear red vinyl LP
2018

(Review by Steve Shafer)

I was really intrigued by this 2018 Record Store Day release after having reviewed (and loving!) DJ Spooky's Creation Rebel--his stellar 2008 CD of re-mixes and mash-ups of classic tracks from Trojan's vaults by Lee “Scratch” Perry, Augustus Pablo, Bob Marley, Tapper Zukie, Wayne Smith, Dawn Penn, and more (read The Duff Guide to Ska Review of Creation Rebel; by the way, this absolutely deserves to be issued on vinyl someday). This time out, DJ Spooky (AKA Paul Miller) is working with material from VP Records and legendary UK label Greensleeves (now owned by VP), and with collaborator Apple Juice Kid (Stephen Levitin) has created an album of both original electro-dancehall (see their epic "Enter the Arena"!) as well as early '80s-sounding dancehall tracks that build upon snippets or larger elements of productions by Henry “Junjo” Lawes, Linval Thompson, Lloyd “Prince Jammy” James, and others to form something radically new (and oftentimes spectacular).

The cuts on side A skew toward modern dancehall, including "Hot Gal," which samples Busy Signal's "Da Style Deh"--there's a telephone busy signal sound in the mix, naturally; "Why I Come" makes good use of Lady Saw's "Walk Out" for a full-on club track; and Miller's and Levity's terrific "Dash It in the Mirror" might remind one of a stripped down Massive Attack-like take on dancehall. I'll cop to being partial to the early dancehall-ish tracks on the remainder of the album, such as the wonderfully heavy "No Return," which versions the Ranking Joe and Jah Screw written/produced "Country Gal Dub" from 1981's King Tubby Meets Roots Radics' Dangerous Dub; the menacing, yet fantastically majestic "Phantom in The Dancehall" (which I think incorporates Eek-A-Mouse's "Sensee Party" as part of its foundation); the mellow keyboard line from Eek-A-Mouse's "Ganja Smuggling" floats over a busy rhythm track on "Showtime (Dynamite Selection)"; and "Music of the Time" utilizes Prince Jammy's "Auto Rhythm" from Computerized Dub and is just this shy of being a digital ska cut. The album finishes with the magnificent "Jah Dub," whose distinctive and dramatic piano riff comes from Black Uhuru's cover of Bob Marley's "Natural Mystic." At first, many of the tracks on Phantom Dancehall might seem pretty uncomplicated, but this is a very smart, inventive, and well-crafted album that gains strength and depth with repeated listens. (And you can definitely dance to it!)

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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Duff Review: Prince Fatty w/Omar and Fatlip "Sunshine" b/w "Sunshine Dub" (RSD 2018 Release)

Evergreen Recordings
Vinyl 7" single
2018

(Review by Steve Shafer)

This is a fantastic and instantly recognizable Prince Fatty roots reggae take on Roy Ayers perfect 1976 jazz-funk-soul creation "Everybody Loves The Sunshine" (if this song doesn't completely epitomize the sound of American black music the 1970s, what does?). For this Record Store Day release, Prince Fatty enlisted the UK neo-soul singer Omar Lye-Fook on vocals and Fatlip from The Pharcyde rapping in the breaks ("Teach the children/celebrate diversity/Like The Beatles/They say, 'Let it be'"), as well some of the great usual suspects in Fatty's musical orbit, including Horseman (drums), Mafia (bass), Bubblers (keys), and Kashta Tafari (guitar). The results, of course, are top-notch--and you probably wouldn't be surprised if I told you that this makes for an ideal summer reggae track. This is coming to a sound-system near you.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Duff Review: Various Artists "Drink the Ska"

Jump Up Records/Ska Brewing
LP
2018

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The loose concept for this unofficial 2018 RSD compilation was born at a Ska Brewing anniversary party in 2017 that featured Jump Up's Chuck Wren on the decks. Wren suggested that he and one of Ska Brewing's co-founders Dave Thibodeau put together a compilation featuring acts who have played Ska Brewing parties in the past, as well a healthy selection of choice bands from Jump Up's current roster. The result--unsurprisingly--is a really great mix of new, lesser-known, and solidly established ska bands from across the USA (many from the heartland) playing a variety of ska styles to please every taste.

The lead-off track is The Toasters' stellar tribute to Motown, "House of Soul (Whirly Gig Mix)," which, if you can believe it, is from 2013 (!) and represents the most recent bit of recorded music from them; surely another 45 must be forthcoming soon (read The Duff Guide to Ska review of the "House of Soul" 7" single here)! Of course, The Toasters have had a long association with Ska Brewing, which even released the limited-edition Sheebeen IPA Black in celebration of The Toasters' 30th anniversary. Top tracks to help you catch up on other well-known bands include Monty Neysmith and The Bishops' hilarious "Mama Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Skinheads" (from their Jump Up record Monty Neysmith Meets The Bishops, which we reviewed here); The Crombies' spot-on ska cover of Billy Bragg's heartbreaking "Levi Stubbs Tears" (from their Jump Up Dance Crazee LP, which we reviewed here); The Dendrites' awesome ska-jazz "Booty Lu's Canoe" (from their recent Jump Up album Damn Right); The Prizefighters' very Skatalites-sounding "The Accolade"; the Bandulus' righteous ska-soul-early rock cover of James Brown's "Good Lovin'"; Green Room Rocker's hot version of Montell Jordan's '90s New Jack Swing cut "This Is How We Do It" (from their Jump Up release Sweat Steady); the grooving reggae "Dogs" by 2 Tone Lizard Kings (with Alex Desert of Hepcat); and Chris Murray and Caps Lock's sweet acoustic ode to consent in "50 Shades of Okay."

Many of the newer/lesser-known bands on Drink the Ska are a revelation and you'll be thankful for the intro. Boss Riot's "Hearts and Hands" ("...they tend to wander") is a terrific, catchy 2 Tone cut with female vocals; Boomtown United's "Work It Out" reminds me of a lot of the excellent modern ska coming out of Europe in the early '90s; there's ska-punk from Buster's Ghost with "Horn Show"; Blue Hornets' "Boom Ska" is top-shelf vintage ska with Dick Dale guitar break; The Breachers' rocksteady-ish (and kind of melancholy) "Walking to the Train" is on a loop in my head; and The Fuss' lovely rocksteady cut "So Many Times" (more female vocals!) is a treat!

Ska fans from all over should be sure to check out this dynamite comp! (Wish I could say the same for Ska Brew's beers, as they're only in distribution in certain states--I'd love to be able to sample their products! Drink the Ska, indeed!).

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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Duff Review: V/A "Recutting the Crap, Volume 2" and "The Future Was Unwritten" (RSD 2018 Release)

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Editor's note: Before delving into my review of "Recutting the Crap, Volume 2" and its companion piece "The Future Was Unwritten," a read through of The Duff Guide to Ska write up of last year's "Recutting the Crap, Volume 1" is in order, as it provides vital background and context for these releases...

Various Artists, Recutting the Crap, Volume 1 (Heavyweight vinyl LP, Crooked Beat Records, 2017): I first heard The Clash's Cut the Crap back in 1985 after devouring Big Audio Dynamite's This is Big Audio Dynamite (both were released within months of each other) and was profoundly disappointed to find that while Jones and company had taken the Sandinista and Combat Rock musical gumbo (punk, hip-hop, dance rock, reggae/dub) to the next evolutionary level, Strummer had made u-turn back toward 1977 punk (at manager Bernie Rhodes' urging), but had been t-boned by Rhodes' god-awful musical direction/production (replete with session musicians, synthesizers, programmed drums, and football terrace-like shouted choruses) and several profound life experiences Joe was dealing with at the time that distracted him from the task at hand (the deaths of both of his parents and the birth of his first child). History has not been kind to Cut the Crap (generally it's not considered canonical by fans and band members alike), but in many cases the acts on Recutting the Crap have revealed in their versions that there were some seriously decent-to-great songs buried under Rhodes' dreck--Strummer's tunes were solid at the core. The Scotch Bonnets' terrific, stripped-down reggae take on the anti-nuclear war cut "Are You Red...Y" alone is worth the cost of this LP. Other notable tracks (all from DC-area bands, where Crooked Beat Records--named after that Sandinista track--is based) include The Violets' ska-ified "Cool Under Heat," Dom Casual's ska-jazz-punkabilly "Sex Mad Roar," Basnji's "Dirty Punk" is loads more faithful to the Clash's '77 sound than the original (Too Much Joy's version of the cringe-y "We Are The Clash" is a valiant effort in this category, too), and Winterdrinks' "Play to Win" sounds like a deep cut from Sandinista. There are even a few covers of demos for Cut the Crap (which was originally titled Out of Control before Rhodes unilaterally renamed it)--I particularly liked Sussed Out with Sol Roots' raucous cover of "Backwoods Drive." A second volume of Recutting the Crap is slated for 2018, which presumably will include the last good and legit Clash single, "This Is England."

Various Artists, Recutting the Crap, Volume 2 and The Future Was Unwritten (2 x heavyweight, color vinyl LPs, Crooked Beat Records, 2018): Volume 2 continues to mine/reclaim the post-Mick Jones/Topper Headon Clash legacy (namely, the Out of Control demo and Cut the Crap album), while The Future Was Unwritten explores the "would have been Clash songs" had things worked out differently--the Strummer/Jones collaborations on Big Audio Dynamite's No. 10, Upping Street, as well as several Strummer cuts written for several film soundtracks in the late 1980s.

The original intent of The Clash Mark II (Strummer, Paul Simonon, Nick Sheppard, Vince White, and Pete Howard) was to revert to a back-to-basics '77 punk sound (unfortunately shedding much of the reggae influence in the process)--as evident on their 1983 Out of Control demo and 1984 tour--and had Clash manager Bernie Rhodes not perverted it all (and instead paired the band with the right producer in the studio, instead of doing an atrocious job himself), the final Clash album might have been pretty damn good.

All of the DC bands on Recutting the Crap, Volume 2 further strengthen this series' case that Strummer could still deliver the goods. Highlights inspired by the Out of Control demo include Indio Bravo's four-on-the-floor, straight-up rock take on "In the Pouring Rain" (a great live version of the original from 1984 can be found on the Julien Temple documentary The Future is Unwritten soundtrack); Space Giants' fantastically rollicking "Rock n Roll City"; Tall Ship's brash, punker-than-the-original "Glue Zombie"; and The Delarcos' nice rockabilly-ish take on "Jericho" (also known as "Ammunition"). Other notable Clash II-era cuts versioned here are Geisha Hit Squad's excellent XTC-sounding "Shouting Street" (eventually released on Strummer's disappointingly meh Earthquake Weather); Ignore Alien Orders' awesome sound collage using Strummer's pre-Clash nickname "Woody," as in Guthrie, for its title (with snippets of The Clash II playing "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" and "White Riot" while busking, a bit of "Street Parade" from Sandinista, Strummer from his show on the BBC World Service, and more); Daly Combat (one of Crooked Beat owner Bill Daly's two bands here) does a bang-up job on this superb reggae instrumental cut "Astroturf" (from a Jones/Headon demo, naturally); and Basenji's faithfully ace, but somewhat muted (appropriate, given the economic inequality of our times) "Bottom Line" (which Mick Jones had been working on as a Clash tune when he was fired from the band). Silveradio transforms the Cut the Crap opener "Dictator" into a much better ska-rockabilly track and, in what may be the best cover on the album, Insurgence DC (the other Bill Daly band) unleashes a phenomenally powerful and majestic "This Is England," a truly great Clash song made even better here--whose lyrics still pack a wallop:

"I hear a gang fight on a human factory farm
Are they howling out, or doing somebody harm?
On a catwalk jungle, somebody grabbed my arm
A voice spoke so cold, it matched the weapon in her palm

This is England
This knife of Sheffield steel
This is England
This is how we feel

Time on his hands, the freezing mohawk strolls
He won't go for the carrots
Been beaten by the pole
Some sunny day confronted by his soul
His eye will see how fast you can grow old

This is England
That I'm supposed to die for

This is England
Never gonna cry no more

Black shadow of the Vincent
Falls on a Triumph line
I got my motorcycle jacket
But I'm walking all the time

South Atlantic wind blows
Ice from a dying creed
I see no glory
And when will we get free?

This is England
We can chain you to the rail
This is England
We can kill you in a jail

Hey, British boots go kick Bengali in the head
Police sit watching
The newspapers being read
All deaf to protests
And after the attacker fled
Out came the batons and
The biggest one then said...

This is England
The land of illegal dances
This is England
Land of one thousand stances
This is England
This knife of Sheffield steel
This is England
This is how we feel"


Strummer's and Jones' post-Clash songs from the late '80s are (unsurprisingly) looser and freer, as they no longer felt confined/burdened by the mantle and mass of conflicting ideals and expectations that defined The Clash (and, obviously, gave them the space to collaborate again, whenever the mood or Muse struck)--but a lot of them could have been combined to make a great Clash album, had Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon reunited (as The Future Was Unwritten posits). Too Much Joy serve up a stellar hard-edged and ballsy "Trash City" (from the soundtrack to "Permanent Record"; this band, Joe Strummer and The Latino Rockabilly War, featured Joey Altruda and Willie MacNeil from Jump with Joey!); it's hard to imagine that this was a Strummer/Jones outtake from BAD's No. 10, Upping Street, but "Dog in a Satellite" (apparently inspired by The Mighty Sparrow's "Russian Satellite") as interpreted by Don Zientara becomes a lovely, heartfelt rock ballad (really!); and "Euroshima," an eerie, nuclear dread 1983 Mick Jones song for Top Risk Action Company (T.R.A.C.), his pre-BAD band with Topper Headon and Leo Williams from Basement 5, sounds kind of gothy (like latter-day Damned) in Sunshine Feels' cool version. Daly Combat's "Love Kills" (Strummer's title track for the Alex Cox film "Sid and Nancy"; Jones played guitar on the original recording) packs even more crunch than the source; Winterdrinks turn "Dum Dum Dub" ("Dum Dum Club," also from "Sid and Nancy") into intriguingly good, X-sounding reggae-punk; and El Quatro successfully rework the Strummer/Jones BAD track "Sightsee MC" into an amazing cover The Plugz or Circle Jerks might have done (and it's got a great Western reggae break in there, too).

Both volumes of Crooked Beat Records' Recutting the Crap strive hard and largely succeed in redeeming Strummer's Clash II legacy (and all of those lost years in the wilderness before finding his mojo again with the Mescaleros). Fans of The Only Band That Matters will find a lot to like here and can rest easy in knowing that these bands have done Joe proud.

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