First up are The Delerians - a Latino ska and funk and reggae band from East LA. Garth, do you know about these guys? You should. They're really good. In their late 20s and early 30s, two guitars, keys, trumpet, saxophone, bass and drums. You can tell they are the good boys who stayed at home practicing their scales when their homeboys were getting mixed up with gangs. They are astonishingly tight, running numbers together in segues and juxtapositions that James Brown would have smiled at. There's only one way to get that tight and that's rehearse, gig, gig, rehearse - with an unshakeable belief in what you're doing.
At anyone else's gig The Delerians would have stolen the show but as soon as The Skatalites begin it's game, set and match. Counting down from ten they blast into "Freedom" and it's just ridiculous how good they sound in this little bar, two thirds full of hardcore reggae nuts from this little rural coastal town, at least 250 miles north of what most (ignorant) people think of as California. I couldn't believe my luck when I saw the little poster on the bar door that served as advance publicity: The Skatalites! Playing here! Wow.... So I dragged Judith out for the 9pm start as advertised. Bit of a Miss Ska Culation. That's just when the doors opened. We sat there nursing a beer, the only punters in the place, as the gig took shape around us. It was delicious for me to watch a process that I am usually painfully involved in from the position of privileged observer (ie, paying customer). Things are done different here. It kinda happens when it happens. Combine that with Jamaican laissez-faire and you can imagine. The bar had slowly got about 70% full by 11:10pm when The Skatalites took the stage. They were still there, pumping it out, at 1:30am. They just didn't seem to want to stop playing. A rainy Tuesday night, a little gig about halfway through a West Coast tour. It took them maybe half an hour to get in the pocket but then they just gave and gave and gave. They played "By The Rivers Of Babylon" and "No Woman No Cry" and I got quite emotional. It was beautiful. The Marley song (that Bob gave to the proprietor of a soup kitchen) has long assumed the status of a secular hymn - and quite right too. There were moments, especially at the beginnings of numbers when they set up the groove in question, where the rhythmic balance and bounce between the horns and the rhythm section was so fine, so perfect, it was like being in heaven. If you can do that, why would you ever want to stop? The set zipped past. I was genuinely amazed when I looked at my watch. I danced badly throughout. Others danced divinely. Of course, it's a celebration of marijuana culture on one level, this region being celebrated/notorious for its high quality produce, The Skatalites being elder statesmen of a music founded as much on a stoned state of grace as anything else. But above and beyond this, it was a celebration of music itself - the joy of music making at the highest level, when a musician has reached that mystical place I was talking about earlier this week in connection to Ernest Ranglin and Monty Alexander, where the notes just do your bidding and time is your plaything. To me, there is no higher calling (but then, of course, I would say that...)
So who's in the band these days? The only original member is Lester Sterling on alto sax, looking resplendent in huge shades and what might be called psychedelic battle fatigues. He only speaks to introduce "A Message To You Rudy" - "because I used to be a rude bwoy", he chuckles. He is a naughty man. The professorial Kevin Bachelor on trumpet quickly interjects, "to all the rude boys and girls, a message of hope and love" to keep people's minds from wondering too much. There's Azemobo "Zem" Aubu on tenor sax, Andre Murchieson on trombone, Val Douglas on bass guitar looking like a Cheshire cat pounding out absolutely faultless basslines throughout, Natty Frenchy on guitar - beautiful job, such a hard gig and no glory, Cameron Greenlee on keyboards, Trevor "Sparrow" Thompson" on perfectly crackling drums, Doreen Shaffer on guest vocals who overstayed her welcome a bit but looks like someone's aunt and who is definitely not a lady to be trifled with. Sorry if I've forgotten anyone. Point being, if, like me, you had tended to write off The Skatalites in recent years due to the death and retirement of so many original members, you are making a mistake. This band are very much alive and vital, keeping the flame for the best in Jamaican musicianship. A brand name of true quality. They're coming to the UK soon. See you there.
I thought that USA was the land where even making a phone call (or, I guess now text / tweet) to someone after 10.30pm was never undertaken unless a life was at stake. And starting a gig that late....it still happens?
Beautiful. I don't know The Delerians but I will go and look them up. Music is so regional in the US that unless someone like you points it out (or it gets the big money machine hype ala Alabama Shakes) it's often only known locally.
I used to go see The Skats when they first reformed in the 90s. Back then several of the old guys were still alive - I recall one had suffered a stroke and played his horn with one hand - how difficult must that have been? Once these cats passed on I passed on seeing them thinking they would be akin to the Wailers. Obviously, I was wrong and will join you in London at their gig.