Music

The Ska Janitors

Backlash to the genre's third wave nearly destroyed ska. But not quite.

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The Toasters, by joyous contrast, toast on. Bucket -- the band's sole original member -- hauled its latest incarnation into Blake's in early January for a Monday-night show that packed plenty of warm young bodies into the Berkeley joint's subterranean lair.

After a somewhat schizophrenic opening set from Arizona's Warsaw Poland Bros. that featured everything from Irish jigs to Hendrixian guitar solos to weird instrumentation (washboards, seashells) to a punk cover of "Please Please Me" -- the Toasters arrived to bring tha proverbial noize, delivering hard-charging dance music that avoided ska's negative stereotypes (ultrafast guitar wankery, cloying horns, dopey melodies) in favor of good-time, gently hip-hop-laced frat party fare, like SF's own Harold Ray Live in Concert with less hipster sheen and more adrenaline.

Weirdest of all was all the kids dancing, in defiance of the indie rocker "Do the Standing Still" status quo. Go ahead and laugh at that doofy-ass kid in the nerdy striped shirt and old-guy hat who's dancin' like your grandpa would if you shot him full of speed and told him he just won the shuffleboard tournament. He's certainly having more fun than you are, and he's taking that blonde on his arm home besides, if only to deposit her on her front porch.

"The whole thing about ska music is it kind of defies the stereotype of 'alienation music,'" Bucket says. "If you're gonna go to a live music concert, I think the whole idea there is to basically interact with the crowd and for the crowd to interact with the band. And that's what makes a great show. I think the stereotype of just goin' and sinkin' down in a seat and watching people onstage like a bunch of zombies, what's the point? You might as well watch TV."

Thus, the Toasters hauled all the ladies onstage for a group dance-off and blasted through the Lynyrd Skynyrd rewrite "Sweet Home Jamaica," before ending the affair with a triumphant "Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down." The whole shebang fell short of total euphoria -- settling instead for simply a splendid weekday night out, which is plenty.

Jimmy Boom, a former ska hound and current drummer for Oakland space rockabilly freaks the Phenomenauts, bounced sedatedly along with it all. "This is the very bottom of the wave, but it's really cool," he exclaimed as the Toasters rang in our ears. "It's underground. Only the people who are really into it would come out on, what is this, a Monday? We are literally underground."


So the Toasters survived, but when they finally succumb to old age, will newly minted ska bands rise to replace them? Cash-strapped Josh Jerge and his Soul Captives hope they'll be there. The sextet just emerged in August, but has quickly risen to the top of the BayAreaSka.com hit list, and is starting to venture outward. Josh's dad recently drove the band to Hollywood in his seven-passenger van so the Captives could open for Vic Ruggiero, frontman for the Slackers, another '90s-boom-surviving NYC ska band that played a quasi-legendary two-huge-set show at Ashkenaz in October.

In December, the Soul Captives played BayAreaSka's official holiday party at Berkeley's Starry Plough, opening for amped-up "dirty reggae" pranksters the Aggrolites and the disquietingly aging Let's Go Bowling. Write this down: Band frontmen should not wear golf shorts. Ever. We don't care what your handicap is.

Josh and his buddies stole the show.

The Captives don't go near the sound that made Op. Ivy underground legends. Theirs is a more reggae- and jazz-inflected sound, anchored by keyboardist Ray Jacildo, who flashed seamlessly from bouncy ska rhythms to funk basslines to spaceship sound effects, basically serving as a one-man link between vintage 924 Gilman ska-punk and straitlaced Yoshi's jazz; the young Captives pack enough weaponry to eventually blow the doors off either venue.

"It's just a lot of fun to play, honestly," Josh says of the Captives' sound, which his snappy little business card describes as "Rocksteady, Reggae, and Traditional Ska." "I have an awful lot of fun performing ska. It's really energetic music, really good dancing music. You go to a punk show, there's people jumping around and stuff like that. But you go to a ska show, and it's almost like people are out there swing dancing. It's more like a classical style of dancing."

Josh isn't worried that his band may have hitched its hopes to the wrong musical horse. "Let's Go Bowling sells these T-shirts that say 'Ska isn't dead -- it just sucks now,'" he says, giggling over the sarcasm. "This style of music's been around since the early '60s in Jamaica. It had a little wave there in the '90s and then it kinda died down, but as far as I'm concerned, it's never gonna die. It's never gonna grow old. It can really mix into a lot of other styles and demographics. We've played at Rotary Club functions, with fifty-year-old people there, and they're dancing to it. Sounds like jazz to them, or big band or something."

Current BayAreaSka mastermind Tom Eppenberger is also high on the Soul Captives, who appear prominently on F%#@ing Free, the site's annual downloadable compilation of mostly demo tracks from local bands such as Shitouttaluck and Native Elements.

Tom is no self-promoting musician himself, just a fan who caught the ska bug in the late '90s while working as a buyer for Rasputin Music in San Lorenzo. He's happy with the small but devoted scene his little Internet haven helps document -- for him, the shows he promotes function as intermittent family reunions: "You kinda see the same faces over and over again, which is kinda nice. There's something comforting in that."

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