‘Skanking’ too much for those unfamiliar to ska crowds

By Garth Brody

I had never been to a ska show before this one, save for local high school groups with even sillier names than the ones on tap for Friday night’s show. So my four-step initiation to the genre (Skasome Society through Big D himself) was sure to be enlightening. To preface, I had known what ska was – what it came from and what it sounded like, even the basic character of a ska show – but it is impossible to understand, from recordings and descriptions, the nature of a ska crowd in full skank.

The kids were calm, however, for the first forty-five minutes or so – through about an opener and a half. Skasome Society, a high school/college act from Westfield, Mass. kicked things off right. They were easily the strongest of the three openers, but with the weakest audience response. Some would call this unfortunate, but I rather enjoyed the slightness of the distracting crowd. The “some” I refer to, however, would be ska fans, who, it would seem, do not come to a ska show simply to watch the band or hear the music.

No, ska fans come to ska shows, primarily, to fight-dance like so many stumbling

Capoeira apprentices. But no matter how hard Skasome Society tore it up on stage, the movement was minimal on the floor. Skasome played generic but catchy third-wave ska, sometimes neighboring on pop-punk, but there was a spark of creativity in some of the arrangements – particularly in the rousing brass section – that was lacking in the heavy dullness of the other openers. However, the other groups possessed something that Skasome didn’t have: the automatic momentum of not being the first act.

A critical energy level was apparently reached in the crowd about halfway through Stereo State’s aggressively unimaginative hardcore/pop-punk set – imagine three 30-year-olds sitting around a Velveeta-stained card table in a garage somewhere near Chicopee and then suddenly they’re on stage and they’re too drunk to get off. The band broke into a big, loud cover that must have been recognizable enough to trigger the club’s uniformity; the skanking began, too suddenly to be escaped.

Skanking, by the way, is a kind of “dance” consisting of clenched fists, swinging elbows, and a goofily overstated cross-leg step. But the most important part of skanking is the tempest generated as the kids on the dance floor get skankier and skankier, pushing, checking, and even jabbing one another into a gleefully chaotic rage.

Next up, Toronto-based illScarlett played some gratingly palatable protest pop (“we are livin’ in a police state!” declared the chorus to one song) with a little bit of soulless reggae stitched in haphazardly. The last of their punk legitimacy fluttered away when the big payoff for their power ballad ended up being nearly identical to the Titanic theme music. But the crowd skanked away, not to be distracted from the most important part of the show – each other.

Finally, just when the sweat was fresh and the bruises were minor, Big D and the Kids Table took the stage. Maybe it was the cohesion gained from performing and recording consistently since the mid-nineties or perhaps the front-man with an ego that entertained rather than annoyed, but Big D felt like what ska ought to be. The freewheeling punk energy was genuine, the stage banter was funny, and the music was well-crafted, even subtle.

The addition of three female back-up vocalists provided not only tongue-in-cheek fun, but a seeming recognition of the pop that bounces cheerily underneath their hard and fast ska punk. Even if they strayed a bit close to the Disney-approved melodies of the openers, they redeemed themselves with a danceable infectiousness that illScarlett and Stereo State could not muster. It looked like a drunken party on stage (as opposed to Stereo State’s just-plain-drunken), which to me is the ska aesthetic perfected.

And sure, the crowd went a little crazier for the band they came to see and the songs they knew, but the change was seen the sharpest as the line between “let’s not dance yet” and “ok let’s dance” was crossed, which occurred at some arbitrary point in the second opening set. The biggest cheer of the night came when Big D front man Dave McWane asked the crowd if they had won some sort of badass contest. Fists flew into the air as their aggression got the recognition it deserved.

The last song they played was a bit slower, maybe a bit quieter (but who could tell anymore), and warmly harmonized in a way that retained all the energy, even the anger, of the rest of the set. But some folks had already begun to leave by then.

Big D and Skasome Society, respectively the oldest and youngest performers Friday night, each played a very tight set, and proved to be the truest ska acts. Their saxophones ripped, their trombones rolled, and their rhythms were wild and loose. So maybe there’s hope for the genre, musically at least. But the music took a backseat to the crowd in an aspect of the ska culture that will always baffle me.

Being social at a show is great, even being asocial has its perks; why, though, would someone go to a show to be antisocial? These fans pay to get into a brawl set to music. Remember how in Fight Club, doing something pretty similar eventually leads to the main character becoming a sociopath?

Nevermind. Just please don’t punch me in the gut, ska kids.

Garth Brody can be reached at [email protected].