I really don't get overly excited about going to shows anymore. There are the occasional few that make me raise an eyebrow in interest when I hear about them, but most of the time I'll just flatly remark that the line-up seems interesting and that will be the end of it until I arrive at the venue. Don't get me wrong, I like the shows I go to, but it takes a lot for me to rekindle the giddy kind of feeling about a show I used to get when I was fresh into the scene. But when I heard the line-up for the 2nd Annual New England Ska Fest, that giddy feeling came back in a big way.
So on Saturday Aug 22, I made the hour and a half pilgrimage to the Nashoba Valley Ski Area in Westford, MA. After 20 or so minutes of waiting in line, I slapped on my press pass and took in the scenery. After a quick glance at the Moon Records table, I got in position to watch the opening band, which this year was New York's Metro Stylee, who had won a contest earlier in the month for the opening slot of the Fest, beating out he likes of Beat Soup, Dion Knibb & the Agitators, and The Brass Monkeys. My only problem with Metro Stylee is that while the music and musicianship is great, the lead vocals are extremely annoying. The vocalist, Trisha Verdolmo, seems to have graduated from the Gwen Stefani school of singing and prancing, and we all know the great debt the Ska community owes Ms. Stefani.
Next were 2 largely forgettable sets with Boston's Big D and the Kids Table and Kicked in the Head. To be perfectly honest, I and many of my fellow concert-goers were confused as to which band was on stage, since they pretty much sounded alike.
The New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble was on next, and had a pretty good set, with Pilfers bassist Anna Milat-Meyer sitting in on the first song. As always with the NYSJE, the musicianship was top-notch and was a welcome change from the watered down ska that was served up by the first few acts. Long Island's Edna's Goldfish followed the NYSJE and were excellent. The Goldfish are one of the tightest bands touring out there today. I've listened to their CD over and over and I found their live act just as satisfying. Edna's Goldfish have what I always look for in a ska band; they are consistent without being repetitive. New York's Pilfers were on next and also put on a great performance. Coolie Ranx had the crowd singing along, and Vinny Nobile was great, as always, on the trombone and vocals. It was neat to see how the crowd reacted to the Pilfers this year at the Fest, and compare it to how the crowd was at last year's Ska Fest, when the Pilfers weren't as widely known.
Next, Montana's, and now New York's, Skoidats hard driven set was fueled by the large Styrofoam cooler of beer that they brought on stage. Always a crowd pleaser, the Skoidats helped add an edge to a day that was seriously lacking bite. Boston's Skavoovie and the Epitones brought forth another great set. One of the highlights was a song that the boys dedicated to Starbucks called "I Hate Coffee" in honor of the coffee superstore's responsibility in closing many of the local coffee shops Skavoovie frequented.
After a somewhat ho-hum set by the Allstonians, Bostons' Dropkick Murphy's were sent in to wake everyone out of the ska induced coma many were feeling by this point. The new vocalist, Al Barr, proved he was the right man for the job as the band ripped through their set, which included "Finnegan's Wake", which made this reporter happy for many reasons. Then the day took a slight downhill turn with the 1-2-3 punch of the Planet Smashers, Spring Heeled Jack USA, and Mephiskapheles. Planet Smashers weren't necessarily bad, they just were not exciting enough to warrant much attention. Spring Heeled Jack USA resorted to their old tricks of throwing things from the stage and squirting water at the audience to cover up the same tired watered down set they've been doing for a while . Mephiskapheles was the real disappointment. This was the second time I've seen them in the space of a month and both times the Nubian Nightmare just seemed to phone in his performance. I hope it's just a phase because I've always really enjoyed Mephiskapheles.
What made the lackluster Mephiskapheles set even more lack luster was the incredible performance by Rhode Island's Amazing Royal Crowns, now renamed Amazing Crowns courtesy of Royal Crown Revue. The Crowns never disappoint and had the crowd, literally, calling out for more. This was one of the last performances under their old name, and one of the first with their new guitarist, Greg, who has replaced fan favorite Johnny "Colonel" Maguire. In my opinion, this set was by far one of the best of the day.
Michigan's Mustard Plug followed the Crowns. Mustard Plug was all right, but I've never really been a fan and their set didn't do much to convert me. Finally, Hepcat closed the day with a great set. The original headliner was supposed to be Bad Manners, but they cancelled many of their North American dates for some reason, one of which was the Ska Fest, so Hepcat had some big (and wide) shoes to fill. However, Hepcat did not fail to please and the set was by far one of the best and smoothest sets I've seen them play.
So as Hepcat played, I reflected on the day. Even though the food really sucked and it was way too hot and dusty, the really good performances outweighed the bad ones, so Johnny Concert-goer got a pretty good deal. And as if it were scripted, the sun set, the temperature dropped to a cool level, Hepcat played on, and everyone was just enjoying the music that had brought so many people from all over the region together.