Monday, April 22, 2013

Duff Review: Beat Brigade, Across the Aisle, and Rude Boy George at Electric Avenue (at Characters NYC) on 4/13/13!

(by Steve Shafer)

For the purposes of full disclosure, I was in one of the bands--Rude Boy George--that performed recently at Electric Avenue at Characters NYC (and, as you know, help book the bands and run these monthly ska nights). So to avoid a complete conflict of interest, some portions of this post are going to be less of a review and more of a first person, experiential piece.

In case you missed my post introducing Rude Boy George, we came together to do ska, rocksteady, and reggae covers of New Wave hits. RBG features Megg Howe (Across the Aisle) and Roger Apollon, Jr. (Bigger Thomas) on lead vocals; Spencer Katzman (Bigger Thomas) on guitar; Dave Barry (The Toasters/Beat Brigade) on keyboards; Marc Wasserman (Bigger Thomas/Marco on the Bass) on bass; and Jim Cooper (Bigger Thomas) on drums. I sing back-up vocals and play a bit of melodica. We're doing this out of our shared respect and love for the extraordinary amount of good music produced during the New Wave era (we're not doing cheesy, ironic covers). And we want to have some fun in the process.

In preparation for the night (I spin records before and after each band at most every Electric Avenue night), I pulled a ridiculous amount of ska, New Wave, and post-punk vinyl off my shelves (and only ended up playing a small fraction of it that evening, natch), but was wary of mixing in too much non-ska (I really wanted to play Made for TV's "So Afraid of the Russians" followed by Fear's "Let Have a War," and The Selecter's "Selling Out Your Future"--since the flip side of the odd-ball, day-glo component of New Wave was Cold War paranoia and dread of nuclear annihilation). Up to this point, the Electric Avenue nights have been exclusively ska and reggae affairs, so I was concerned about alienating the regulars (though in retrospect, Beat Brigade brought in an older crowd that had experienced their high school days years during the glory days of New Wave, so they would have dug it; as it was, many people approached me to comment on how much they loved a song choice that I'd made...).

After the doors opened and before our set, I found myself pretty distracted as I was digging through my crates and putting the needles on the records. Not only was this night going to mark my debut in a band, but we had hoped to squeeze in one last run-through of a song or two at sound check (we'd rehearsed about 6 or 7 times over the past few months--no easy feat, given everyone's work/family responsibilities). Without getting into recriminations (and all has long since been forgiven), the drum kit that all the bands were sharing didn't arrive until just prior to our set time...

Even though the rest of the members of Rude Boy George have been performing for years in Bigger Thomas, Beat Brigade/The Toasters, and Across the Aisle, several of my bandmates were visibly nervous--particularly without a warm-up--so I actually felt kind of relieved being in the same boat, jittery nerves and all (in the "(Keep Feeling) Fascination" video, you can see that I can't stand still during the intro). Plus, I'd been in enough plays/musicals throughout my schooling, as well as sung in amateur and professional choirs, to have experienced plenty of stage fright and to know that anxiety and adrenaline end up focusing and powering you through your performance.

Nonetheless, it was still a bit of a shock to find myself up in front of the mic without that last practice. But there was no time for fear--all my attention was on hitting my notes and marks, and before I knew it, we'd made it to the end of our set (Culture Club's "Church of the Poison Mind"). I'd had a blast performing and it had certainly helped to be in front of such a friendly and enthusiastic crowd of about 100 people that was really into Rude Boy George's mission and sound (to everyone that was present--thanks so much for your support!).

Enough of my navel-gazing. Check out the videos that my friend (and ex-Moon Records colleague) Ray Manuud shot of us, which will give you the best idea of what Rude Boy George is all about ...

The next Rude Boy George gig is on Saturday, June 1st at a special Electric Avenue show--stay tuned for more details. We'll have a few new covers ready by then, too!

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Over the past few months, Beat Brigade have been recording an album, and whatever magic they've been working in the studio has definitely infected their live show. I've seen the band several times over the past year or so (after completely missing them in the 1980s) and each performance ends up topping the previous one! Between the superb Specials/Costello/Clash influenced original cuts and the incredible musicianship of the band (the unstoppable rhythm section of Ramsey Jones on drums and Frank Usamanont on bass; Dave Barry on keys; Carmelo Dibartolo on guitar and vocals; Erick Storkman on t-bone; Michael Kammers: sax; and Jack Hoppenstand, guitar, who was unable to perform this night), Beat Brigade are one of the finest and most powerful acts on the ska scene. Their 80s NYC ska vibe still sounds brilliantly unique and contemporary after all of these years (even back then, their mix made them stand out from their competition on the NYC ska scene; dig out "Armageddon Beat" off 1985's NY Beat: Hit and Run compilation or "Try and Try Again" off their 1987 split single with The Toasters--it's like nothing else at the time). To use an archaic (and late Cold War era), but completely appropriate and accurate phrase, Beat Brigade are the bomb!

Here are the Beat Brigade videos that I shot. Thanks to Dave Barry for shoving me at one point!

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Hopefully, this came across in my drunken and semi-coherent introduction of the band that night, but I really do think that Across the Aisle are one of NYC's underrated gems. Their eternally sunny ska-pop-punk packs one hell of a wallop on your musical chin (i.e.: they knock you out every time). Megg Howe is a truly gifted and dynamic performer and her bandmates (Ashray Shah on bass; Jay Reid on drums; Jesse Gosselin on guitar; Jackie Chasen on sax; and Andrew Hagerty on t-bone) are a whip smart, amped-up ska groove machine. Because I had to talk some business (so it goes), I missed too much of their set, but what I caught was pretty magnificent--including a few of my favorite ATA songs ("Beer Song" and "Better Off," both from ATA's great, debut The Mercy EP), which I videotaped and saved for all posterity...

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Ska melts in your mouth, not in your hand!
Lastly, I want to take a moment to publicly thank my good friend (and another ex-Moon Records employee) Adam Liebling for underwriting part of this Electric Avenue night in celebration of his birthday. Adam generously paid for the admission of the first 40 people through the door (all of which went to help pay for the bands' performances that night) and he gave out amazing birthday party goody bags to friends as well as several random people in the crowd! My own personalized and much appreciated goody bag included a bag of white and purple M and Ms with Walt Jabsco, the Beat Girl, "ska," and "Electric Avenue" printed on them; a Derrick Morgan CD; Madness and Buzzcocks badges; and a "Great Performance" ribbon (in anticipation of my bit with Rude Boy George, which I hope I earned). And I later learned that Michelle Ska received a goody bag with a Moon Ska zippo lighter--only 250 of those were made (mine is squirreled away in an undisclosed location!). If you haven't guessed, Adam is the man!

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Check out the spectacular photos of the bands taken by Bryan Kremkau of can see Rude Boy George here and Beat Brigade here.

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