Friday, April 29, 2011

Reflections On The London International Ska Festival: An Eyewitness Report

Oh how I wish I had been able to cross the pond to attend the London International Ska Festival (LISF) at the Clapham Grand Theatre this past weekend (before all this royal wedding nonsense).  Sadly lack of funds and timing conspired against me and I was not able to make the sojourn.   That said, I followed the shows from afar and stayed up to date via reviews from The Music Fix, The Standard London Evening, and The Other Side that brought the festival to life for fans like me. Though I can't share a personal account, I have the next best thing -- the eyewitness account of Joachim Uerschels (the singer/guitarist of German ska band The Braces and ska blogger Joe Scholes) who travelled to London from his home in Germany and was kind enough to share his impressions of the 4-day festival.

The LISF was the brainchild of Sean Flowerdew (Pama International, Special Beat, The Loafers) who also helped organize the original festival 23 years ago at The Fridge in Brixton which featured Laurel Aitken, Bad Manners, Potato 5, The Loafers, Hotknives, The Deltones, Napolean Solo, The Braces, Bim Skala Bim, Capone and The Bullets and Skin Deep (read Uerschels excellent account of his memories of the first LISF). The second version was much more ambitious and broader in scope including a diverse mix of original artists from the 60's and 70's (Ken Boothe, Dave & Ansel Collins) as well as bands from the original festival in 1988 (The Loafers, Napoleon Solo, Bim Skala Bim) and ska mainstays like The English Beat, Dub Pistols, The Trojans and last minute addition The Lee Thompson All-Star Ska Orchestra. Special guests included Lynval Golding of The Specials, Rico Rodrigues, Rhoda Dakkar of The Bodysnatchers/The Special AKA and Buster Bloodvessel of Bad Manners and Jerry Dammers (who were both spied dancing in the audience).

Uerschels who sold his Ampeg SVT-II bass amp to pay for the trip got the blessing from his understanding wife (who spent the Easter weekend alone with their young daughters) to attend the LISF. Without further ado, here are his detailed day-by-day impressions of the shows:

Why was going to the LISF so important to me? It might sound over-the-top: I believed that in those four days in London my life in Ska would come full circle. In 1988 my band The Braces played the first London International Ska Festival. Our musical career didn’t get any better than that. Some bands from that time were going to play in 2011 again. Bim Skala Bim, Napoleon Solo from Denmark, The Loafers, Skaos and The Trojans. I was anxious to see how life had dealt them. And I wanted to see all those people that had embraced Ska as much as (or even more than) I. Here are some notes from my four days at the LISF.

Day 1: Ken Boothe/James Hunter/Giuliano Palma & The Bluebeaters
We arrive at the wonderful venue The Grand in Clapham just in time to watch Giuliano Palma & The Bluebeaters play. The second band of the evening, and the guys from Italy put on a superb show. They are a reminder of how much the musical quality in Ska has evolved in recent years. When Soul man James Hunter takes over, he plays great music for me, but not for some of the Ska people. The final act of the night is Ken Boothe. His voice is so touching. It revokes lots of club nights in me, dancing to 'Everything I Own' and other gems. Many in the room feel the same. Still there is a heaviness in the air. The evening is far from sold-out. What does that mean for promoter Sean? And for the Ska world? Or is it just the Thursday?

Day 2:Dave & Ansel Collins/Dub Pistols/The Loafers/Hotknives
A near perfect night. In 1988 it would have been unthinkable for most 2-Tone heroes to show up at The Ska Festival. They felt they had outgrown this music. Ska was an unpleasing memory, a pimpled, boring ex-classmate whom you rather not greet in the street. Fast forward to 2011 and there is a different picture. Three generations of music lovers from all continents come together to party in the name of Ska. The crowd is bigger than the night before. And the 2-Tone bunch is at its center. Lynval Golding from The Specials jumps on stage for songs with The Loafers and the Dub Pistols. Rhoda Dakar is dancing along and smiling, even Jerry Dammers is standing at the bar. Skaos rock it. During the Hotknives’s set there is only joy in the room. The Caroloregians show that early Reggae is the Boss sound of today. The guys from Belgium are a mighty force on their own and a worthy backing band for Dave Barker & Ansell Collins. What a night.

Dave & Ansel Collins perform 'Monkey Soanner' backed by The Caroloregians

Dub Pistols perform a blazing cover of The Stranglers 'Peaches'

The Loafers with Lynval Golding perform The Specials 'Rude Boys Outta Jail'

Day 3:The English Beat/The Trojans/Intensified/Napoloeon Solo
I can hardly talk. Last night has taken its toll, a gigantic hangover is here in combination with a hoarse throat. Man wasn’t made for 4-day festivals. Everything looks grey. And if that wasn’t enough: I missed Napoleon Solo. On the flyer that I use as orientation Nap Solo was left out. Next on is Intensified. They are being celebrated, and deservedly so. I like to think that with Intensified some spirit of The Braces is on stage. Their organ player Steffi used to be with us. I have to find a bed. After a quick nap I’m back for the last songs of The Trojans. In 1988 The Trojans from London were the first band to produce an authentic Ska sound (together with The Ska-Flames). They used to roll like it was 1962. Today their shows are happenings, a bunch of mad professors meet on stage and celebrate life’s incomputabilities.   I am pleased to see Rico and Ru-Ru-Rudy Valentino on stage. Yet, the drive of the good ol’ days had something, too. The evening is topped off with the return of The English Beat to England. They are introduced in a moving speech by Lynval Golding. Can Dave Wakeling’s version of the band play? Hell yeah. Their collection of hits is warmly appreciated by the crowd, too. So, do they have the magic of the original? That might be too much to ask for.

The English Beat with Lynval Golding perform 'Jackpot' and a new song 'Two Tone Lady':

Rico Rodrigues and The Trojans perform The Skaltalites classic 'Confuscious':

Day 4:Bob & Marcia/Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra/Owen Gray/Bim Skala Bim
The final day. That was supposed to be it? The voice is still not back. Bim Skala Bim are setting up their equipment when we arrive.  In 1988 The Braces and Bim Skala Bim had shared two floors in Buster Bloodvessel’s house prior to the first London International Ska Festival. Back then they were incredibly good musicians who gave it all on their rented instruments night after night. From what I heard they take it easier today. It’s hard for me to tell whether the lineup is still the same, after all those years. But I think it is, minus singer Jackie Starr. The rest have lost nothing of their drive. It’s hard to believe. Brilliance. The Ska Flames from Japan should be on next. But they have cancelled their show due to the situation at home. Lee Thompson’s Ska Orchestra took their spot. Highlight of the slapstick driven performance of Ska were three songs with early reggae entertainer Owen Gray. The great final is another demonstration of Jamaican old school entertainment. Marcia Griffiths is second to no soul diva. A unique voice, a demanding stage presence. Marcia is your big sister, caring, and always in control. The room seems packed. Organiser Sean is standing next to Lynval on the balcony, with a smile on his face. Somehow all must have been worth it.

Bim Skala Bim (the only American band that played the LISF) perform 'Pretty Flowers': 

Lee Thompson All-Star Ska Orchestra perform 'Sit & Wonder':

Owen Gray backed by Lee Thompson's band performs the classic 'Too Experienced' (which was covered by The Bodysnatchers).

Marcia Griffiths performs 'The Liquidator':


Steve from Moon said...

Brilliant, Joe! Thank you so much for sharing your LISF experience with all of us who couldn't make it. Glad to hear that the US scene was well represented by Bim!

Who knows, maybe next year Marc and I will run into you in London?

dublinsax said...

Great report Joe, sums it up perfectly and by Day 3, I was also pretty wrecked. There were so many highlights from the weekend, I thought that both The Hotknives and The Trojans in particular got an amazing reaction

Joachim Uerschels said...

@ Steve: Thanks for the kind words. Hopefully there is another LISF next year. Maybe with a little side progam: I have been dreaming of a Ska Soccer World Cup 2012. That would be fun.

Joe Scholes said...

@ Thanks, dublinsax. What a shame that we didn't meet each other in London. My impression was that the audience were madly in love with The original Hotknives. A bit more than with the rest of them. The Trojans added a special London Happening vibe to the party. They changed the atmosphere in the room. Which is a great thing, too. That's at least how I saw it. But you are right, there were so many highlights.

Joachim Uerschels said...

@ Dublin Sax: What a shame that we didn't meet at the LISF. My impression was that the audience was madly in love with The Hotknives. The Trojans had this "London happening" vibe going on. Which added some other flavour to the Festival. And which was received very well, too. But you are right. There were so many highlights at the Festival. Let's hope there will be more to come.