Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Duff Gig Review: Bigger Thomas at Havana (New Hope, PA), 1/14/12

My comrade-in-ska-blogging Marc Wasserman (AKA Marco on the Bass)--who is the bass player for NYC area ska band Bigger Thomas--was kind enough to let me tag along (i.e.: hitch a ride from New York City) to their gig in New Hope, PA, where the band was scheduled to play three sets that night (apparently the standard operating procedure at Havana). Bigger Thomas had advertised on their Facebook page that this show would feature many cuts from deep in their catalogue that they rarely play live (they've been around since 1988!). If nothing else, I figured this would be a fantastic opportunity to experience and document material that some Bigger Thomas fans only know from their recordings.

I had first caught Bigger Thomas soon after their transformation from Panic to Bigger Thomas at the NYC Ska Live show at the long-gone Cat Club on 13th Street and 4th Avenue in Manhattan on March 26, 1990--and continued to see them sporadically in the 90s. But I lost their thread in the 2000s--Marc calls the first half of this decade their "wilderness years," when they mostly played bars along the Jersey shore--and I didn't reconnect with them until about 2009, when I started becoming more involved with the ska scene again through The Duff Guide to Ska.

I, too, had my figurative time lost in the Sinai after almost a decade at Moon Records in the 1990s and a couple of years with my own, ahead-of-the-curve digital download ska/reggae label 7 Wonders of the World Music (check out an archived, somewhat functional page from my label circa April 2001 here). I had to focus more on earning a living and raising my kids; but like Bucket says, ska is like malaria..."Once you get it in you, you never get it out." And I eventually found my way back to my musical home.

On the way down to PA, Marc told me a bit about New Hope--essentially, it's a funky, left-of-center oasis in a desert of conservatism. In high school (he grew up nearby in New Jersey), this was the place to come and escape the sterility and monotony of suburbia, and where you caught alternative bands and picked-up cool stuff at the head shop in town.

Bigger Thomas has played Havana dozens of times before, so there was a hometown-like fan base primed for the band. In fact, of the several groups of people who had shown up specifically to see the group--two were birthday parties (one of which was also celebrating the 22nd anniversary--to the very night--of first seeing Bigger Thomas in Hoboken with The Toasters). Needless to say, Bigger Thomas (with specials guests Roy Radics of The Rudie Crew on vocals and Jenny Whiskey of Hub City Stompers on sax) was extremely well-received by the audience, as they performed dozens of tracks culled from Bigger Thomas' debut cassette in 1989 through to their superb 2010 record, Steal My Sound (read The Duff Guide to Ska review of this album here). Bigger Thomas also included a few choice covers from the 2 Tone-era artists and their predecessors that inspired them, such as The English Beat's version of Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown"; seriously hot versions of The Specials' "Nite Klub" and their version of Toots and the Maytals' "Monkey Man"; and Rico Rodriguez's "Jungle Music."

Some of my favorite songs of the night included their early hits "Simple Man," "Ska in My Pocket," and the calypso-ska of "Manhattan Holiday" (all from their debut "Red Album" in 1989); "I Live at Home" and "Fun" (from 2004's Resisting Success); "Say it Again" (from 2005's We Wear the Mask); and "Radics and Roger A Chat" (from Steal My Sound).

As you'll see from any of the videos I shot below, Bigger Thomas was in top form this evening. I had a blast (during all three sets, I was always torn between dancing and videotaping the band in action) and couldn't shut up about how great they were in the car ride back to Manhattan. I'm sure I was far from the only one raving about the band that night on their way home...

(See even more Bigger Thomas videos from this night on The Duff Guide to Ska YouTube Channel!)

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The weirdest thing about the night--and it's what I love most about seeing ska shows outside of the jaded NYC scene--was that the crowd (mostly "kids" in their 20s ska, plus the ska faithful-forty somethings) that danced with such fervor when Bigger Thomas played, stayed on the dancefloor in-between sets and grooved equally hard to the Lady Gaga and Katy Perry tracks that the DJ played repeatedly (note to band: I'd love to spin some ska and reggae vinyl the next time you do your thing there!).

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Special thanks to Juice for never steering us wrong with recommendations for food and drink!

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Randy said...

You were definitely not the only one raving about this show on the way home. I've seen these guys in Pa twice in the last year and I have to say that they're probably my favorite live ska act. They have an energy and stage presence like no band I've seen in a long time. I went to a lot of ska shows in the 90's and I still wonder how these guys remained under my radar back then...

Steve from Moon said...

Right on, Randy!