Monday, October 1, 2012

Duff Gig Review: Beat Brigade, Bigger Thomas, and Doomsday! at Electric Avenue (at Characters NYC) on 9/15/12

(Write-up by Steve Shafer)

Well, to be candid, this isn't really a review, since I helped put this whole show together with Marc Wasserman of the Marco on the Bass blog (and Bigger Thomas). So, consider this more of an enthusiastically biased show report for those who weren't able to make this gig. (By the way, that's Paul Gil of The NY Citizens from back in the day representing on the show flyer--he was at the show, so we thanked him in person for letting us borrow his image for our own purposes.)

On Saturday, September 15, about 130 filled up the back room of Characters NYC (a great Irish pub in midtown Manhattan near Columbus Circle and most subway lines) to be time-machined back several decades to experience a night of old school 1980s and 1990s NYC ska sounds/vibes with Doomsday! (The Ultimate Tribute to Mephiskapheles Consisting of Former Members of Mephiskapheles), Bigger Thomas, and Beat Brigade. In between sets, I shared the decks with Kames Jelly and we spun everything from early Skatalites to recently released Prince Fatty.

First at bat were Doomsday! (The Ultimate Tribute to Mephiskapheles Consisting of Former Members of Mephiskapheles), who served up a spectacular, almost folk-ska (check out the electric banjo, rhumba box, and melodica!) tribute to Mephiskapheles/themselves (several were founding members of Meph who recorded the infamous Mephiskapheles demo tape, The Demo(n)--which they performed in its entirety: "Doomsday," "Dansemenot," "Eskamo," and "Shame and Scandal"). Some highlights of Doomsday's set included the mass, inebriated sing-along to "Saba"; Michael Drance (of The Bluebeats) joining Brendog Tween on vocals for a wonderfully rambunctious rendition of Toots and Maytal's "Sweet and Dandy"; the sweat pouring off Mikal Reich as he slapped his rhumba box into overdrive; Jerica Rosenblum's haunting melodica lines; and the palpable and enthusiastic love and appreciation radiating off the audience for the band.

I first caught Meph live back in '91 or 92' at some second floor venue--its name is lost in the less traveled recesses my brain--on 23rd Street and 11th Avenue in or next to a nasty flophouse/hooker hotel and was sold on the band after experiencing their show amongst a sea of skinheads (Buck had sent me to the gig to scope them out after hearing their demo tape). So, it was absolutely fantastic to hear these tracks again after all this time. Doomsday's performance had to be on the early side for NYC and short due to some other obligations of one of the band members, but we hope to have Doomsday back at some point later this year.

(This was our second Electric Avenue show and we're still working out the last few sound and lighting issues with the venue, so please forgive us if some of the videos below are a little dark and the vocals are too low in the mix.)

Up next were perennial faves Bigger Thomas (with the always brilliant Roy Radics of The Rudie Crew) who completely killed it with their high energy, 2 Tone-influenced brand of modern ska--and had the crowd on their feet for their entire set. If you can separate the fact that I'm a huge fan/friend of the band, take my word that Bigger Thomas are one of the best/most enjoyable ska bands on the NYC--if not national/international--scene. I've never been less than completely impressed by every one of their performances. BT played several cuts of their most recent album, Steal My Sound, including "Crown Victoria" and "Can't Remember My Name," as well as older songs like "I Live at Home" (very under appreciated, but one of their greatest) and "Simple Man." (In related Bigger Thomas news, they're currently recording several new songs for a digital, and possibly vinyl, EP in 2013!)  Bigger Thomas are one of the NYC ska scene's biggest assets/treasures. Each time I catch them, I'm reminded why I like ska music so much (catchy tunes to sing along to; the social commentary in the lyrics; propulsive grooves that make you move; and the simple fact that the whole thing is fun as hell!). Whenever they play near you, always make sure to see them!

I entered the NYC ska scene in the late 80s, well after Beat Brigade's rise and fall, but was always aware of their great reputation and importance to the development of this genre in New York and beyond (read some great background on Beat Brigade here and here, courtesy of Marco on the Bass). But due to a host of all too common and lamentable circumstances, the band never released more than two songs on wax ("Armageddon Beat" on the Moon Records NY Beat: Hit and Run compilation LP and "Try and Try Again"--the flip side to The Toasters' "Talk is Cheap" single, also on Moon), which is a real shame, because Beat Brigade have the goods (and then some) and they deliver it in spades (I heard from keyboardist Dave Barry and bassist Frank Usamanont that there are current plans to enter the studio and lay down all of BB's greatest tracks, which is incredible news).

What I really like about Beat Brigade is that their songs and sound are not easily pigeonholed. It's definitely ska, but not stereotypically so. Like so many of the foundational 80s ska bands in New York City, Beat Brigade's music is uniquely their own; they're informed by 2 Tone (particularly The Beat) for sure, and also heavily influenced by the New Wave/post-punk of The Smiths, Elvis Costello, The Jam, and The Clash--but everything is mixed with the secret sauce that is in the songwriting minds of the Beat Brigade. The result is something hard to classify or pin down and that's what makes it particularly great.

My first introduction to ska was through The Specials and The Beat--so when I picked up The Toasters' Recriminations EP and NY Beat: Hit and Run comp at Sounds on St. Mark's Place back in 1985, I fully expected to hear 2 Tone ska. To be honest, I was put off at first; I wanted a continuation  of the familiar and beloved Dammers and Wakeling vision of ska, not the challenging, almost foreign newness of what all these NYC bands were doing with ska. Yet, I came around pretty quickly, playing "Radiation Skank" over and over on my record player, shedding my preconceived notions, and coming to fully appreciate the amazing and special NYC ska sound on its own terms. (The next ska purchases that helped expand my ska horizons were Fishbone's debut EP--which I bought at Caldor's of all places--and The Untouchables' Wild Child.)

Beat Brigade's performance at Electric Avenue was nothing short of a revelation; they were stellar. For so many of us that missed out on seeing them in the mid-80s, Beat Brigade's performance this night was like a gift, a chance for the space/time continuum to bend back on itself and let 1985 and 2012 exist at the same moment for an hour or so in a small corner of Earth called Manhattan. At the end of their show, I felt so thrilled and fortunate to have seen them--to have heard amazing new-to-me songs like "Keep Still Dark"--and to know first hand why there was a big buzz about them in the 80s. I must see them again soon (and you can bet that we'll be bringing them back to Electric Avenue in the future).


Brendog said...

Steve - the only 2nd floor place I can ever remember playing (in NY, as there was one in Pittsburgh we played), was Private Eyes, which, as I recall, was on Varick... you sure it wasn't there?

Steve from Moon said...


You're probably right! My freaking memory is going. What I do remember is that it was very close to the river, up a long, narrow set of stairs, and it had a low ceiling. And that you guys were really great that night!



dan said...

The Beat Brigade! Wow... I do remember that Toasters-BB split 7" we picked up with my friend Dave, after school, at Yesterday & Today records! Such a great release: best Toasters tune ever and a promising BB tune. And that other Beat Brigade track on the Moon compilation, really outstanding... Were the back just for this special show?

Steve from Moon said...

Thanks, Dan. Beat Brigade are back and gigging. In fact, they are entering the studio soon to lay down some of their greatest tracks from back in the day and more! Additional details coming soon!