Friday, April 18, 2008

King of Calypso

Earlier this week, I was helping out a friend at a gala for a music school where I used to work (I'm a grantwriter/development professional during the working hours) and the featured guest was Harry Belafonte (the connection to Duff Guide=he is of Jamaican descent and was instrumental in popularizing calypso/Caribbean music). In his speech--he had just come from the UN and was off on a peacekeeping mission in Africa the next day--he made such a profound statement about the importance of music (that I'm paraphrasing here): "You can't fight a war while you're making music."

Maybe--whenever we get around to this--in addition to beating some of those swords into plougshares, we could forge some instruments? Just wondering...

Interesting factoid about Mr. Belafonte: his third album, Calypso (released in 1956), was the first recording by a single artist to sell over 1 million copies. Of course, this featured the ever-popular "The Banana Boat Song" aka "Day-O."

* * * *

According to the New York Times, 3,100 record stores around the country have closed since 2003--nearly half of those were independent shops. In Manhattan and Brooklyn alone, some 80 (!) record stores have closed in the past five years. For someone who grew up buying LPs and cassettes from real live people in stores (my local spot was Mad Hatters in Yonkers, which specialized in new wave and had tons of British imports), I find this terribly depressing, like helplessly watching some beloved species of animal going extinct no matter what you do. But, Saturday is Record Store Day! The day to fight back and support your local indie music shop. Go on, log off iTunes, turn off the computer, I know there is something out there that you are aching to buy! And be old school--get it on vinyl!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Interview: Buford O'Sullivan

Buford O'Sullivan is one of the NYC ska scene's best trombonists and has probaby guest performed in the studio or on stage with every ska band of note in our fair city. He was a member of The Scofflaws during the 90s, penning such tongue-in-cheek ska classics as "Nude Beach," "In the Basement," "Back Door Open," and "William Shatner," and joined The Toasters for a few years in the early 00s. Currently, he is the full-time trombonist for the Easy Star All Stars (along with another ex-Scofflaw, Victor Rice) and was kind enough to take the time to answer a few of our questions...

The Duff Guide to Ska: The Easy Star All Stars have achieved an extraordinary amount of success with both Dub Side of the Moon and Radiodread. Apart from regularly having the cash to pay the rent, what’s it like to be in a band that has hit the big time?

Buford O'Sullivan: Ah, cash for rent…New York City is a tough call for that. Really, being a part of a band like ESAS is a sacrifice to the gods, in that it is not really lucrative so much as it is enough to justify the dream. I think the “big time” is a couple of rungs up the ladder… I’d say we’re some steps above the ground level, but we still share rooms. It pays well, and the people in the band are immensely talented, so sharing the stage with them is an honor. It is a road band, like a “road show” where the producers and creators of the project stay home as the artists go out. We are taken care of, we have per-diems, decent hotels, and all that. I’m racking up some frequent flier miles! I get to see places in the world that I’d never get to see otherwise. It isn’t easy, though. Playing music rarely is--it just looks that way.

DGTS: On tour, what are the ESAS crowds like, mostly alternative rock or reggae fans?

BOS: Reggae fans, some hippies, some alt fans, and some rudies thrown in for good measure. It always makes me happy to see a few pork pies out there.

DGTS: Your My Space page has a picture of you in front of the Pyramids at Giza; are there a lot of Radiohead and Pink Floyd fans in Egypt?

BOS: Well, that one was kind of a bust--we were supposed to play that cool stage under the Pyramids, but that fell through, so we played the hotel where we were staying. It was fun, by the HUGE pool, I had my own room that time. We had a guide take us around Cairo. The show wasn’t that well attended, but I mean, hey, it was Cairo. That is a crazy place with donkey carts on the freeways.

DGTS: Apart from Egypt, what are some of the more unusual places you have toured with the Easy Star All Stars? Any favorite moments that you’d like to share?

BOS: Playing Istanbul is great, because that is a combo between Cairo and Milan, kind of. We’ve played a lot of great festivals--we got to watch the Beastie Boys from back stage in Ireland. We played an outdoor arena in Rio de Janairo at 2am. We had a rock star crowd at Luna Park in Buenos Aires. We played Red Rocks in Colorado, just like Bono!

I think my favorite moment was a high-end wedding we played in Antigua. Our hotel was on the beach with Montserrat smoldering on the horizon. I went sailing in a hobycat in the lagoon. It was my birthday, so the band threw me a party… I mean, that was the best birthday EVER!

DGTS: What’s on deck for the Easy Star All Stars this year? Will there be a release of original material or a reggae version of another classic album?

BOS: Until That Day is a digital release, with a limited pressing. All original tunes by the band, and you can get it at The next project is a secret while the label gets the rights. We’ll know soon, hopefully. Just more touring, back to Turkey, Israel, Portugal, Baltimore…

DGTS: Are you still working on your own side projects (a la the Buford O’Sullivan Experience or Buford O’Sullivan and the Roosters, etc.)?

BOS: I am always writing. I am kind of in-between bands right now, the Roosters have a lot on their own plates, wives, kids, jobs…and they all live out on the [Long] Island, so it is hard to get them together. There’s another band coming around later this year, hopefully.

DGTS: Are you scheduled to make any guest appearances with any ska or reggae bands on tour or in the studio in the coming months?

BOS: I guest with Dub is a Weapon from time to time. I also play with The Ideas, a funk band with Roger Benson and Maria from DIAW. I also play with Courtney Lee Adams Jr, where I play country trombone.

DGTS: What was your first introduction to ska, and what are some of your all-time favorite ska releases?

BOS: First intro to ska was in 1980, when I heard Madness, The Specials, Bad Manners, the Skatalites, all before the ‘Third Wave’ ever came up. My first band, Big Noise, was a post-punk dance band, and we played a covers of “Nite Club" and "Ball of Fire."

Favorite releases…I think “Mirror in the Bathroom” is the coolest one, but that opinion changes from time to time. I always like the songs with Rico on them, so count the Specials in. Don Drummond wrote some beautiful stuff that transcended just a “dance beat” sound, it really had soul and identity and demanded respect.

DGTS: Which ska/reggae releases are you listening to these days?

BOS: Well, I play so much of that kind of music that I have been listening to other things in my spare time. I’ve been checking out some Duke Ellington. I always have WFMU on my internet radio, and that station plays all kinds of things, like Chinese pop songs from the seventies. Some Lou Donaldson. I was into Morphine for a while... I liked the Led Zeppelin reunion concert at the O2 arena…got me back into that stuff.

DGTS: What’s your take on the current NYC ska scene versus ska scenes elsewhere?

BOS: I just went out to LA with Dave Hillyard. I thought the scene out there was massive! New York is too, so don’t get me wrong-- the "Three Floors of Ska" shows at the Knitting Factory are always sold out.

The healthiest scene seems to be the UK. Last summer, ESAS did two consecutive tours of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and I saw all of the heros. Lynval Golding was playing with Pama International, which was completely great. We played with Neville Staple and his band, and Ranking Roger with HIS band at the same festival (cold, cold northern England festival, brrrrrr). Terry Hall was playing with The Dub Pistols, but I didn’t see them because I was being rocked by Iggy and the Stooges. I heard him from across the field, though. I watched Madness from backstage at a festival on The Isle of Wight, and it was like they were The Beatles! They played the songs verbatim, note for note, all original members. Bad Manners still play, the Selecter still play, ALL of them still have bands that play. There are also a lot of new bands who are great! Ska is tradition in England, while here in the States, it is kind of an import. The Toasters have trouble crossing the Midwest for lack of crowds and venues, though they still pack ‘em in in the major cities. You know, I think the USA is a tough place to play right now--not to insult any fans, of course, because they are still there and they have my full respect--but with the economy failing, and the way things are in the music scene lately, it is just hard to get people to come out. The UK is definitely the place to be as far as ska is concerned.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Specials on the Cover of Mojo

Even though their story has been told many times, it's still a pretty big deal that The Specials command the cover of a major British music magazine like Mojo more than 25 years after they broke up (downer: the US cover sports Neil Young, with the Specials stuck up in the corner). Of note, when you purchase the mag, you receive a free CD with the mag that contains ska and punk cuts by Bob Marley & the Wailers, Neville Stape, Desmond Dekker, Symarip, Belle Stars, Toots & the Maytals, The Ruts, Rico, The Untouchables, Laurel Aitken, and more. They don't have this issue at the newstand near my job yet, but I'm keeping my eyes peeled for it. Also on the Mojo site, they have links to all of The Specials' videos that are lurking out there on the web (in the UK, Chrysalis has released a Specials "best of" collection that includes a DVD of all their videos).

In related Specials news, according to BBC Radio 6, the band is going into rehearsals this summer in order to prepare for a tour in the fall. The article does not mention if every original member is participating (Jerry Dammers?)--only Terry Hall and Lynval Golding are named. Stay tuned.

The Toasters: Live at CBGBs

MVD Audio

Ah, the live record...such a tricky proposition. On one hand, a band isn't worth its salt unless it can put on a good live show--a host of shortcomings can be hidden in the studio. Yet no concert performance is without its warts (despite our adulation, the musicians are only human), and capturing and conveying the vibe of a particular night in a club is difficult: you, the listener, are not in the crowd hearing, seeing, and feeling the same things everyone else is at the show. Let's be honest, listening to a concert CD can be a sterile, almost alienating experience (you're not soused, sweaty, and packed sardine-like in front of the stage, you're just probably doing something mundane at home or in your car or at work). And when we listen to a CD or LP, we kind of expect to be hearing something close to perfection from a band, whether it is a concert or studio recording, right? (Hell, the only time I'm really excited by a live recording is when the band's performance is freakin' sublime and they have altered the song in some way that greatly improves upon the original studio cut.) When you are at a gig, you're more forgiving of the band's mistakes, especially after you've had a beer or two.

The Toasters have released a number of live recordings over the years, most of them pretty good, though I'd always pick the experience of seeing them in person over Memorex. They always put on a good show. Simple as that. This brings us to The Toasters: CBGB Omfug Masters: Live June 28, 2002, The Bowery Collection. What makes this a notable recording in their extensive catalogue is that it was the last time The Toasters ever played CBs (before it closed in 2006) and the band hadn't played there since ska and hardcore were banned from the club around 1990 due to too much violence at gigs (going to a ska show in the early nineties was sometimes risky business--batteries were thrown at the band on stage, fights broke out on the dancefloor--stupid, depressing stuff). The performances here are mostly good--though there are a few bum notes (ahem, horn section) and botched lyrics (Buck totally flubs "2Tone Army" and then asks the band if they can do a song he knows the words to!). Also, the crowd that night sounds pretty lame (Sledge even asks them if they have ever heard "Run Rudy Run" before), but The Toasters make the best of it.

Since this was 2002, the band was road testing tunes in support of Enemy of the System ("Sitting on Top of the World" and "Modern World America") that sound good and the rest of the set list is made of up of a string of hits: "Shocker," "Shebeen," "Mona," "Run Rudy Run," "I'm Running Right Through the World," and one of my all-time favorites, the first Gulf War-era "Ploughshares into Guns." Trombonist Buford O'Sullivan even squeezes in his drinker's lament, "Can I Get Another?"

The CD packaging is pretty sad--mostly pictures of the skanky interior of CBGBs and a tribute to Hilly Kristal by Handsome Dick Manitoba of The Dictators--nothing about The Toasters (this recording is part of a series of live performances at CBs by various bands, so the label is saving some cash on the booklet and tray card). Also, a major complaint: the CD ends before the last song is finished; it simply fades out before they are done. Not cool.

All in all, this is not an essential Toasters recording to own, but it sounds like it was a fun night to see 'em. Obviously it's a must for Toasters completists; and if they never tour near where you live, it's the next best thing to being there. Just turn the stereo up loud. (B/B+)