By Courtney Pitman
Let’s be clear from the start: I’d never heard of the Skatalites before 3pm on Tuesday afternoon. A nominal-effort Google inquiry schooled me on the Jamaican band from the 60’s considered to be the originators of ska, and foundational in reggae and rock steady.
…And that more or less encompassed my entire contextual knowledge when I walked into the Howard Theatre six hours later: old Jamaicans, trumpet and sax madness, reggae, the lush delight that is the Howard Theatre, and however all of those things connect to my nonexistent grasp of Ska—which is almost entirely derived from the band at the Valley party in Clueless.
A cursory glance around the space proved my expectations surprisingly accurate… with the exception that it was harder/better/faster/stronger in every way.
The Skatalites definitely curated and propelled the HARDER / BETTER / FASTER / STRONGER -ness, but Howard Theatre swallowed these beautiful absurdities with grace and spat it back as deliciously as Cheddar Chex Mix. The aptly named founding sax player Lester Sterling acted as the ecstatic emcee, bringing to mind a surprising image of my Floridian great-uncle Bill. In his jeans and Bermuda shirt several sizes too large and white sneakers Sterling had a fantastic time inciting the crowd, though it was unclear whether he was even aware if folks reacted. Like Uncle Bill, he’s earned the right not to care what other people are doing while he’s enjoying himself.
And the Skatalites certainly enjoyed themselves. Rolling eight people deep—half of those the horn section—they navigated mostly long instrumental tunes that kept the crowd engaged by one-upping each other on staggering solos. At any given moment the Skatalites evoked a degree of reggae, jazz, Caribbean, Latin or big band dance influences (and probably ska, but the genre still eludes me), sometimes all in the same song. This method proved successful, refusing to allow the crowd to settle into an inevitable auto-pilot: seven songs in they introduced the first vocals. Because they could. A repeated three-syllable chant constituted the extent of the lyrics, but it proved one of the best songs of the night, bringing the show to a new height.
Another directional shift came when Uncle Bill announced, rejecting any inkling of subtlety, “We’re gonna go reggae now. We’re gonna give you the Bob Marley.” This slowed drum- and bass-driven section was the most impressive of the night, freeing up the brass crowd to show off their own giddy line dances, and more importantly, to sing. It was something like “Bayabaaaaa,” and it was awesome.
Right as the Skatalites launched into their show, the crowd morphed into a frenzied amalgamation of dancers. The hip-swinging-toe-tap move prevailed, executed with full confidence across all levels of ability and with each individual on their own rhythm. Among the individualized conformity were beautiful exceptions: the guy all the way in the back by the bar leaping around like some sort of jungle ape-frog, the couple swing dancing by the tables, a Ron Burgundy look-alike who moved to his own beat all night, and an older couple who won the “most adorable thing I’ve seen this week” award spinning each other. Deserved shout-out to the two girls up front in the old-school Adidas gear though, they killed it all night.
The image had the air of 11pm at a family wedding reception… the night starts tamely with only the confident folks on the dance floor showing off their rhythm or their confidence through lack of rhythm. But fast forward a few hours and a few vodka tonics, and you realize that was Aunt Pat whirling by you all arms and hips, and someone grab Cousin Leon off the table before Grandma realizes he’s tripping his balls off, and wait—are Uncle Norm and his niece Karen two-step dance battling each other in the corner?
As the Skatalites initially took the stage, the very first thing Uncle Bill said to the crowd was, “We’re gonna count 10-1 and then we’re all gonna yell freedom. Ready? 10…1 FREEDOM!”
…That sentence probably could have been my entire review. That’s as good as it gets.