Dave Hillyard and the Rocksteady 7
New York, NY
(Review by Steve Shafer)
I first started reading about Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra in Tower Records' magazine "Pulse" in the very early 1990s--and was incredibly intrigued by this ska band that was gaining so much mainstream attention and had attracted major label backing (Epic), especially at a time when ska was an underground thing, worldwide. And then a few of their releases began showing up in Tower's import bins--mysterious (with psychedelic artwork and Japanese text), tantalizing, and pricey. Since my ska obsession knows no bounds, I picked up many of their available imports (though, to this day, I don't know the titles of some of the TSPO releases I have!) and immediately fell in love with their pumped up, big band, Skatalites-influenced sound.
I had always harbored the hope/fantasy of traveling to Japan to see TSPO there, but my life's plan (so far) hasn't made this possible. During my time at Moon Ska Records, I thought it might happen. I had helped handle the licensing of many of our releases to our Japanese sister label, Moon Ska Tokyo (run by Tachyon Records), and to promote some of the Moon Ska Tokyo releases, Tachyon arranged for several Moon bands to tour in Japan. But the opportunity never arose for me to tag along with any of them.
In the waning days of Moon, sometime in 1999, when everything was starting to crash down on our heads after the mainstream music press and music industry had formally declared ska dead (triggering an avalanche of returned CDs from record stores across the nation), a few representatives from the Japanese major label Avex (who had recently set up TSPO with their own imprint, Justa Records) visited me in New York with the intention of exploring some sort of partnership between Moon and TSPO in the USA. Sadly, Moon was in no condition to launch a new endeavor with TSPO or anyone else (around this time, The Porkers had finally made it over to the States for the Warped Tour and to support their Hot Dog Daiquiri release on Moon, but, in a bit of miserable timing--and much to my horror--Moon's promotion department had been shut down, and I could barely look Pete Porker in the eye when he was in town). Had this meeting taken place just a year or two earlier, a deal between Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra (who, no doubt, would have toured the USA in support of any domestic release) and Moon Records might have positioned the label to survive the hard ska times coming at the end of the century...
I did come away from the Avex encounter with some incredible TSPO 7"singles and 12" EPs on Justa Records for my troubles, which hold treasured spots in my record collection to this day.
When Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra played NYC's Central Park Summerstage about eight years ago, for some reason (and much to my regret), I missed it (I must have been out of town). So, when I received an e-mail a few months ago from someone in Chicago who was inquiring about good places to stay in NYC when TSPO plays, I dropped everything I was doing and scrambled to get a ticket (even though TSPO was playing a Sunday night show at a new, non-ska venue) and altered my friend Marc Wasserman (Marco on the Bass/Bigger Thomas) to do the same.
From pictures on its website, Stage 48--located in Hell's Kitchen/Clinton, off 11th Avenue--appeared to be a cavernous space (that typically hosted hip-hop concerts and themed club nights), but it turned out to be a surprisingly intimate space, with a U-shaped balcony over the dance floor. I saw/heard very little about the show ahead of time (where were the preview articles in the local media?), beyond the ticket contest I did via The Duff Guide to Ska and listing the bill in The Duff Guide to Ska NYC ska calendar a few times. So, I had no idea of what to expect.
When Marc and I turned up at the venue, the line waiting to get in was comprised of what I assume were Japanese ex-pats--and they made up about half to two-thirds of the 500+ crowd that eventually assembled inside. The NYC Latin ska scene was well represented, and I spied a cross-section of NYC ska scenesters, including Buford O'Sullivan (ex-Scofflaws, ex-Toasters, Easy Star All-Stars), Ricardo from Los Skarroneros, Skankin' Rich, and "Checkerboard" Phil Dejean.
The Pandemics were up first and compelled the audience to dance to their fun mix of punky and modern ska originals and covers (including The Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There" and Prince Buster's "Hard Man Fe Dead"). I thought I had a bunch of video shot of The Pandemics from their show at Electric Avenue earlier this year, but it turns out I don't, and apologize to the band for not taking some here!
Dave Hillyard and the Rocksteady 7 (a supergroup of sorts, including Larry McDonald on percussion; Dave Hahn on guitar; and Rich Graiko on trumpet) brought a completely different vibe to the venue with their excellent, laid-back jazzy ska and rocksteady. The group's musicianship and performance were really top-notch, though their extended jams with solos all around let the energy in the room lag a bit at times (to be fair, the fans were craving TSPO's supercharged brand of ska).
|Click to enlarge TSPO set list.|
Unfortunately, due to adult responsibilities (it was a Sunday night, with a long, sometimes difficult work week ahead), Marc and I had to jet after about half of TSPO's set (I know--heresy!). I really wished I could have caught more of their show--especially after I saw their complete set list the next day. But what I did hear and see of Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra will stay with--and buoy--me for a very long time.