KEEPING IT STICKY ON DERBY WEEKEND
Temecula, CA – For the millions who watched the muddy, thrilling, Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on television Saturday, I can say without a doubt that the people at the Derby City festival were having the foot-stomping, rocking, uniquely soulful time of their lives. I know this because I have been in town/at the Derby. However, for the great and varied Louisville experience, my Derby weekend was all that and a bag of fries known as ska.
What makes a Derby Day in the state of Kentucky so special?
You visit old friends and make new ones. There are BBQs, alcohol, and people smoking both cigarettes and pot. Usually there is some author or literary person visiting in town that has a new book out. People are out in droves and invariably, there is at least one other sporting event taking place the same day usually at night, after the Derby also. Add in romance, instant local notoriety, and a special group of tourists; that’s the recipe for the Derbies that I’ve experienced as a Derby Day participant.
What made my Derby Day in the state of Nevada so special? Ska music in great weather.
At the risk of Fast Eddy’s ire for a ‘teaching moment in a story’, I’ll opt to update those who know little about the music genre known as ska. Originally a blend of many if not most genres outside of the mainstream, ska has influences of all but not in equal proportions, however, always there are horns and a strong bass line. An analogy would be polka done to a quick R&B beat with punk lyrics, horns replacing the accordion, a funkified big band sound but played with other genre accents (blues, jazz, pop, jingle, etc) and varied as the band’s dialect playing/writing the music.
Like any genre, the music has evolved past a more distinct band individuality based on familiar ‘girl/boy/world sucks’ themed days toward the politicized punk world view first expressed in styles still relevant like Skankin’ Pickle’s Ice Cube, Korea Wants A Word With You. Contemporary items, catchy lyrics, and cover songs are also a staple of this funky up-tempo genre that almost cracked the mainstream in the mid-90s. And so ska remains claimed by a devoted underground following dedicated to the stabbing musical punctuation delivered with an R&B roadhouse punch line.
I was in Los Vegas in an off-again, on-again, off-again, phone rang 48-hours ago back on-again, ‘intern holiday treat’ for the Vault production staff. Though running like a Swiss watch to the public that attends the show and the bands that play those shows, the precision of the movement was set and polished by Ivan Promotions. Long time staffer and Ivan’s protégé Pilar, holding the mic for Ataris band frontman in picture, was recently promoted to MIC [man-in-charge], so this was also a celebration.
The original party of 25, five cars and a bus, shrunk to 12, 3 cars, with a ‘couple’ in each, two of which are new this spring. Our scene car, a black-on-black with black rims Charger is driven by a young intern with twin blond streaks through his hair, Disney looks, and his real name is Fabian. One of these days I may ask him if he knows who his namesake is, or was, lol.
We rolled into Vegas at the end of Fremont Street for rooms on the 16th floor of the Plaza Hotel. The weather is dry, sunny with heavily chem-trailed skies, and windy. After a little reservation mix-up that Ivan prudently handled, we check in then go for some food. Taken as tourists, we are hustled for the top-of-the-line Champagne brunch though only two of us actually drink at the Fremont Hotel. Vegas is a lot like New York City, the economy rolls on tourists, not shoppers. Away from Sin City it is a different story.
Arriving at the Henderson, NV venue, an outdoor structure covered with perforated aluminum roofing for maximum ventilation, the first few bands have already appeared as we are ‘walked through’ by the lead promoter, again after a minor blip. After securing the left corner lower section in the pie-shaped, artificial grass covered, concrete terraced amphitheater reminiscent of the Temecula Music Fest site years past. Perhaps it is because a ska crowd is friendly and the music is happy in tempo, uplifting in beat, I made two new friends, a third my age, almost immediately. Or maybe it was the Spongebong tee shirt. At any rate, my new friends, one of whom was diabetic, would be my source of beer [free PBR] after a $4 can of Lite, as we sat and enjoyed excellent ska music while periodically smoking in the boys room.
The Maxies, known in some circles as the Maxie Pads for their use of red and white, had played, but I did say ‘hello’ and grab a copy of the band’s latest release, Greenland Is Melting.
Codename Rocky, a band that has recently played The Vault, played a set while I roamed the small space getting familiar since there were no in-and-outs for us.
For me and for many in the crowd, the show started with Be Like Max. The intensity of the passionate frontman, whose voice wasn’t great at all, was carried over the top by an exceptional band that laid a bottom end like a bulldozer. The horns, the precision, and several outstanding radio friendly thumpers had the main crowd in the mid-section a ball of bouncing bodies in beat time.
The international appeal of ska was evident in the next band, named Ronconvacoco. The family style Latino band, which featured a female trombone player, played a tight set in a style of old school ‘house party’ ska that translated well musically. The only English words on the CD cover are ‘Parental Advisory, Explicit Lyrics, FBI Anti-piracy Warning, and Scumbag Records’, the band’s label. Here the ska reflects the sexy Latin rhythm instead of the urban Detroit boogey.
Ska veterans The Skeletones played next, proving they still have the chops to rock the house with their ska blend. Curiously enough, the booth selling The Ska Parade [internet] radio merch had a compellation CD that featured two selections by The Skeletones, one of which was a live selection recorded 7/30/94 in Riverside at The Barn. Cowinkiedink? I think not.
Next up was a favorite of mine partly because of the theatrical nature of the performance and partly because of their heritage as a Disney performing band. Though the tall frontman is the center, he often interplays/shares the spotlight enough to give the band a traveling troupe type of camaraderie. As with The Vault, Suburban Legends worked the crowd up to the next level through sheer showmanship and catchy hooks to slight ‘bad boy’ lyrics. Given the headliners, I am not sure how many SL fans were in the crowd before the killer set, but I do know how many were there at the end.
From the Fresno music scene, which reminds me of the Des Moines music scene, came the band Let’sGo Bowling, a straight ahead bluesy ska group. Once again the band style complimented the night’s groove in a way that was missing in the next band, The Chinkees. I took a break to stroll around but was back for Reel Big Fish.
Reel Big Fish is maybe the band that best illustrates why ska didn’t achieve mainstream crossover success. Being such a blend of so many different genres and always uptempo, I think people just never took ska seriously. Rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, jazz, country, and even blues in contemporary terms, all have a happy side to rock to but also have a serious side for contemplation. Ska’s serious side is wry with humor and a good beat. Reel Big Fish, a band also from the heyday of ska is a prime example.
Songs like ‘Everything Sucks’, ‘Dateless Losers’, ‘Somebody Hates Me’, ‘She Has A Girlfriend Now’, ‘Don’t Start A Band’, and ‘Sell Out’, just to name a few, all deal with punk mindsets sung through tongue-in-cheek lyrics pierced by horn blasts over be-bop soul. Having played the ‘Our Live Album Is Better Than Your Live Album’ a slug of times, I sang along with the crowd choir, smiling my ass off.
After a couple of encores, I said ‘good-bye’ to my new bud buddies, never worrying for a single second the whole day about anything close to a Boston Marathon incident happening. Except for the security scattered all about, I don’t anyone had a Boston thought because it was a ska crowd. Though anti-establishment like punk, ska music is music of the meek. The pit, though packed, wasn’t brutal.
Back at the hotel as the crew waited a few minutes to catch their breath before hitting the Fremont Street strip, I turned into a Sleepasaurus as the day, the PBRs, and Mary Jane all caught up with me. Like a kid I went down, clutching my Viva Ska Vegas event shirt with The Vault Concerts logo among the sponsors on back.
The next morning as everyone else slept in, I headed out to see early morning Fremont Street. Though most of the stores and shops were still closed at 8AM, a few souvenir places weren’t, and I found a simple but cool ‘Cannabis, Los Vegas’ tee shirt for $3. That shirt predicted the rest of my day, as I spent the mid-morning to evening over at Fast Eddy’s, an infrequent source of past stories for music and medical marijuana.
Predating Nevada’s becoming MMJ friendly, Fast Eddy rolled into town like he was Snoop coming to Compton. Bringing his penchant for top drawer service coupled with So Cali quality meds, Fast Eddy soon carved out a niche market in the growing medical marijuana market as sick people drop taking prescription drugs and the associated side-effects. Daughter Destiny is getting good grades in college and life is good for Eddy who is focused, productive, always problem-solving, money making, and now happy.
And speaking of happy, nothing shows ‘happy’ more than instant notoriety. At the Blue Man Crew Show at the Monte Carlo, Vanessa [‘Nice Girl’] was chosen to perform a music percussion number onstage with the Crew. She was so good in the skit that after the show a number of other audience members stopped her, as we waited for her to join us, and asked if she was a ‘plant’. Not too shabby for the newest member of the Vault team as Ivan appears to have put together a team as unique as the old Movie Crew with one exception, no Whammies!
From Fast Eddy, Los Vegas, and me,