Thursday, August 23, 2012

Review: The Shifters - In It! and an interview with Keith Duncan

...I am officially addicted.

It happens on occasion. I get myself an album that I can't get out of my speakers, my headphones, or my head in general. It's been a while. Then I was sent a copy of The Shifters new album, In It! And it happened again. My addiction kicked in full force, and I can't stop listening.

Or dancing.

A couple months back, I did an interview with Steve Jackson of the Pietasters, and he mentioned the music scene in the Washington DC area. He mentioned The Shifters specifically. Always willing to take the word of a my blog subjects and an admired musician, I began my quest to get more familiar with these guys. I found some YouTube videos and while I was highly impressed with how tight this band is live, it was not until I got this album that I realized just exactly what level of amazing I was dealing with here.

To call myself a music snob is probably an understatement, and I am not easily impressed by anyone for any reason. Studio album or live performance. But The Shifters figured it out. Whatever that magic formula is that puts music in my head and keeps it happily lodged there, they have it. I am wondering where the heck I have been hiding that I have not been all over these gentlemen.

The Shifters formed in 2010 in Washington DC. "It was more of a drunken garage project. I don't think anyone really took it too seriously", says Shifters trombonist Keith Duncan. "However, there were a few higher caliber players in the band which sort of propelled us forward. Manolo (Los Granadians) is definitely a consummate reggae and rocksteady writer. We also had Jorge from The Ambitions on bass, and Taylor has been a touring musician for many years in various rock bands. I've always been a fan of less-than-modern Jamaican music".

As is often the case after a sound is found, nurtured, and perfected, there were various changes to the band itself. This eventually led to the lineup as it is today...which is, to say the least, an amazing match-up of talented musicians and performers. All you have to do is give their most recent album one spin, and that is obvious. Keith Duncan was nice enough to sit down with me and tell me a bit about the process of making the new album:

Keith: "Last year, I flew out Persephone from Ocean 11 to do a mini tour. The reception was overwhelming from all ten people who saw it, and we realized we needed to move ahead legitimately with a recording of some sort. We practiced our asses off for that Queen P tour, and we were really sounding tight. It was fairly obvious we needed to record, but I think we had a whopping thousand dollars in our band fund which would barely cover the recording studio."

"Taylor (trumpet player...side note: he wrote a song for Weezer) and I started talking about Kickstarter. My buddy in LA, Jason Lawless, started a record label through crowd funding and I though we could emulate that for our record."

"We booked the studio time, and we set up a Kickstarter page. I crunched the numbers, based on wanting to press a 10inch, and I came up with a conservative $2,500.

Check out the Kickstarter page here...

"We blew that number out of the water with a little advertising, and we were really happy with the recorded results. So we took the extra money and pressed a special run of blue vinyl for Kickstarter patrons. More importantly, we had enough money to have Brian Dixon (from the Aggrolites) do us a favor of mixing our record, which really sent our sound over the top."

While the band formed in DC, they hail from all over the country, and the world. Keith is from San Diego. Taylor is from Oregon. Matt is from Louisiana. Manolo is from Spain. Gerry is from Africa. Scotty is from New Jersey. The remaining boys (Budman, Harris, and Julian) are the only locals, by means of Maryland. Their diversity in geographic origin is hardly the only thing that sets them apart from other bands in this scene. Their sound is smooth. Groove-laden bass lines and keys layered between clean brass sounds and soulful vocals. It's addicting, but don't take my word for it. You need this album.

From beginning to end, it's not only melodic and dance-able, but I have found myself singing along with it since the second time I listened to it all the way through. My favorite track changes daily. Hourly maybe. Lately, "It's Been Too Long" has been the most frequently played, followed by "Moving On". Both have not only a wonderful rocksteady groove, but the vocals are amazing. Beautifully sung lyrics and melody melded in a wonderful balance. The brass is clean, perfectly placed, and well mixed. It's a theme throughout the album in it's entirety. It's really, really well done...beginning to end. If you can listen to one track on In It! and not find yourself dancing just a little bit...quite frankly, I don't know what to do with you.

"Waiting For A Sign" is also on constant repeat lately. Great lyrics, and each piece...each instrument, each amazing musician...put together perfectly. I am writing this, right now, with my headphones on and this song blasting. I am sitting, and can't help but be moving. I wish I was hearing it live. How far is DC from NJ?

The album, all the way through, is a groove you can feel, straight through to that inner most spot in your soul that makes you close your eyes and dance. And then start asking yourself and anyone else within ear shot..."When the %#$ are these guys going to play the NYC area?!" Well, at least I did. No one answered me yet...but trust me, I am working on that...

To say they are tight as a band is an understatement. I found a video of a live performance of "It's Been Too Long" from sometime last year. If I was not completely in love with this song before, I am now. Completely sold. Is it possible to have a crush on a song? Because I do.

What's a girl to do?

Beg and plead for The Shifters to make a pilgrimage from their home base in DC and come play in North Jersey, of course. I will settle for New York City...parking and tolls are more than worth the price of seeing these gentlemen do their thing live. There is something about hearing music you really love when it's being performed in front of you. The vibration. It cuts into you in the most delicious way.

I can't wait...

You can buy the Shifters album In It! at Stubborn Records by clicking HERE!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Skankin' in the Tri-State Part 6: The Pietasters on a Mutherfuckin BOAT!

...Steve Jackson and's a duet!

I don't know where these booze cruises have been all my life, but I hate that I just finally started embarking on them this summer. It's beer. It's ska. It's dancing. It's amazing views of New York City from the East River as the sun sets. It's great people. It's a great show on a damn boat!

Let me start off by saying we just barely made the boat at all. Traffic into Manhattan from North Jersey is a nightmare on a Friday. Add in some construction around the Lincoln Tunnel, and we have a recipe for anxiety. A booze cruise is not like a regular show in that you can meander into the venue whenever you get there. You need to be there, on the boat, by a certain time or the boat leaves...and you are standing on the dock waving it goodbye. Last time I did this, I took the Holland and barely made it. This time I figured the Lincoln would be another option. We should have taken the advice of the drunk guys in the bar in Stanhope where I picked up my cohorts for the evening (Rob and Steve) and taken the damn ferry.

I figured we would have enough trouble catching one boat. Two boats...and we might never get home.

After several frustrating hours in traffic, discussions on everything from Michael Vick to what exactly is in all those bottles on the side of the road in Weehawken, we finally tossed the car in a garage, hopped in a cab, and made the boat with about 15 minutes to spare. My advice to you, fellow Jersians... take the ferry.

After the Slackers cruise, I was not sure what to expect. This was a slightly smaller boat. My experience growing up on a lake taught me that means we are going to feel the waves a little more. I learned after only a few minutes on the boat, still docked, that this was very true! We tipped back and forth quite a bit...all of us occasionally grabbing for railing, walls, and one another for support. No matter though. One of the many reasons I love my fellow ska folks is the attitude we all have for the show, the music, and one another. No pushing or shoving required...and a grab for stability is met with a smile and a laugh.

We were on our way shortly after eight. The Pietasters took the stage shortly after that. We had been expecting thunderstorms all day, as they had blown through earlier in the afternoon. The experts at had warned us they would be back, and the boat was prepped with pull down plastic walls on the upper deck where the band was set up...just in case. The rain never came. The heat was nice enough to stay. No one seemed to care at all. We were one on that boat. One mass of sweaty, dancing, singing, beer swigging ska kids, swaying with the wakes of the much bigger boats on the river.

I tried to take a picture at one point of several guys in the front of the deck, in front of the Pietasters, who were bracing themselves with one arm holding the ceiling, but the boat was not steady enough for me to get the shot clearly.

As is usually the case, the band was amazing. The Pietasters have been doing what they do for over two decades now. Touring and playing live shows for over 20 years is no small feat, and staying power is not a common thing among many of the bands that made a name in the third wave of ska that swept through the early 90's. But The Pietasters...these guys have it. Their sound is diverse and fun. They have the energy, they have the fans, and they have the music that will bring us all out to any club, festival, boat, or venue that they are booked in until they just decide it's not fun anymore. Judging by how much fun we had this past Friday, I don't see that happening any time soon. And thank fucking goodness.

I managed to squeeze my way up to the front, behind my ever delightful friend Roy Radics (of NYC's own  also amazing Rudie Crew) as he was called to the stage for a few songs. I can't even imagine how the guys in the band were able to play for us as long as they did, as well as they did, and as energetically as they did. It was HOT up there! Between the lights, the crowd, the plastic walls, and the heat was a sweaty mess. And I could have cared less. I took as many pictures as I could, between fits of dancing of course.

As soon as they started in with Movin On Up, the crowd was up and upon singer Steve Jackson to scream along..."Cause' I'm bigger than you and I'm badder than you!..." I was right up there with them. The girl next to me and I taking turns dancing and screaming. There was a girl in a pretty white dress and saddle shoes who's dancing pretty much beat the ever loving hell out of me. It seem to be my luck that at every ska show I attend, there is always a girl dancing with me in the front who's enthusiasm equates to flailing arms and stomping feet...usually my feet. I still have bruises from the Hub City Stompers show last weekend...

...and it doesn't bother me in the least. We usually meet up again somewhere around the ladies room or the bar, and we laugh.

My favorite Pietasters song is and will probably always be Girl Take It Easy...and once that was going, forget it. I was staying. I danced myself silly, had a great time screaming the words right back at Steve, and by the time I wandered back to the back of the boat and the night air, I was sweating like a whore in church.

It's nothing a little cold beer doesn't cure. I stood on the back of the boat with Mr. Radics and my friend Rob, enjoyed the river breeze and the evening scenery as we drifted back to the docks. I was sad when it was time to get off the boat. But you know it's not over...

Thank you to the Pietasters for an amazing show. See you in DC (or Philly?) for Skalapalooza!

Get your SKALAPALOOZA information HERE!

Black and White photography by James Walker

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The integrity of an artist...where is it going?

I just saw a notification that Tony Sly of No Use For A Name has passed away.

I love NUFAN. I have been a fan since my early 20's when a friend loaned me their album More Betterness...which I think I still have somewhere (don't loan me CD's you think I might like...). It was in the CD player of my Volkswagen for an easy three months before I took it out. I think that was only to bring it in the house, where I played it again. Developing my voice as well as my mind in those years, I used to BELT out Life Size Mirror, Let It Slide, and Chasing Rainbows the most. The songs were amazing. They had lyrics I related to in my post teen angst, pre-find myself mid 20's when I didn't know who the hell I was or where the fuck I was going any day of the week. I still love them. Still sing at high volume when the songs come up in my iPod shuffle in traffic.

The more the news of Tony's passing gets around, the more stories I am hearing about who he was as a person, off the stage, out of the studio. The one common sentiment that rises to the top of the chatter was what a down to earth, fan connected guy he was. My friend Brett recounted a story of a Warped Tour where he was sitting around in the grass (as we all did at the Warped Tour in our much younger days) and Tony walked by. Instead of meandering on to whatever band obligation he had, he sat down with the group and joined the conversation. Just hung out.

Not long after, Brett caught a NUFAN show in New York. Crowd surfing about (ah, youth...I remember you fondly) at the show, he found himself at the stage, and climbed up. Instead of being kicked off, Tony came at him with open arms for a hug and a "HEY DUDE!" like he remembered him. Who knows if he did. It doesn't matter. He didn't treat the kids who bought his records and came to his shows like one a mindless ramble who didn't "REALLY get" what he was all about. He treated them like they were new friends he met at a picnic.

The more I meet musicians who are somewhat established (if not entirely) in their craft, the more I realize how much integrity seems to be falling by the wayside. Being a groomed writer, I consider myself a bit of an artist myself. I count many musicians as both friends and family, and I understand the creative mind better than some may think. It makes you think differently than your more practical friends, sure. Your mind colors outside the lines, so to speak. doesn't give you an excuse to be cheeky. It doesn't give you an excuse to be aloof. It doesn't give you an excuse to be rude. It certainly doesn't make any of these qualities sexy or intriguing. What these qualities make you is a dick.

Like it or not, those annoying people who surround you at shows, who want your opinion on their music or world issues (whether or not you like the music or agree with the world issue). Who want to take your picture or shake your hand. Who want you to meet their girlfriend that they met at your show. Who want to interview you for small zines and blogs. Those people are the very reason you have an audience at all. Otherwise, you might still just be sitting on your bed at some girlfriend's house playing guitar. Not headlining a tour, playing a world famous stage, or cutting an album.

I am a fan. Sometimes, it's frustrating to be a fan.

For some artists, I am a minor fan. For some, I am a massive fan. I am always afraid to meet artists I actually admire because I am always terrified that they will be a dick to me and crack that creative pedestal I put them on. I won't hear that love song and think "Yeah, I know just how that feels!" any more. I will hear that love song and think, "Yeah well, she probably did that to you because you're a dick." Is that fair? No. Probably not. But I never met a listener of my radio show or a reader of my work and didn't think it was amazing that anyone listens to me or reads what I write. Not that I have massive amounts of either, but I can at least in some small capacity understand someone being into what you do.

Not long ago, I got to see The Slackers on a booze cruise. Wasn't the first time I saw them, but it was the first time I was going to be on a small boat in the East River where it was likely I would bump into them, if not actually get to say hello and ask for an interview for this silly blog of mine. I was terrified to meet them. Do you know ridiculous that sounds to me in my head as I write this? But I was. Because I listen to them at least once every day of my life. I love them. My kid loves them. They write music that had been an active part of my personal soundtrack through good times and bad times.

Thankfully, the guys I did get to meet were very sweet and most accommodating to my giddy requests.

And now when I listen to them, I feel something extra in the music. For someone like me who is so fiercely emotional, music is a gateway. It's a key. It opens something into the soul with words and melodies and feeling that is only and can only be conveyed in music. Once someone touches you with their music, it's as if a connection has been born. It's a very personal thing. Music is very personal. While I may not understand what drove you to write that lyric or that melody, I know how my own life is reflected in it. Like a smudged mirror. And it becomes personal to me. Dear to me. As does the artists.

I know I am not alone in this.

So these intense connections can be and often are created with the audience. This is what makes it so much more monumentally devastating when you are a dick to a fan. Aside from the fact that we spend money to hear your music, own your music, and see your shows live...we love what you do. Unless you are a reincarnated G.G Allin, we really don't go to your shows expecting to be shit on. The one thing I can say as a frequent show goer and avid observer is that this integrity...this love and appreciation for those people who put you where you failing.

In the ska and punk rock scenes, it seems to still be fairly prevalent, and that is one of a thousand reasons that I have always felt a little more at home among it's sweaty bodies and fellow misfits. At the Slackers booze cruise show, the crowd on the dance floor was constantly losing it's footing due to the thunderstorms outside. I loved that we would just grab onto one another and smile and laugh to hold ourselves and one another up. When people would need to get out of the crowd, it was not a push and a shove to get through. It was a hand on your back or your shoulder and a polite "sorry!" with a smile.

Even some of the rougher punk and oi shows I have been to, the pushiest and most violent pits still had guys who after shoving one another as hard as they could would throw an arm around one another and sing along with the vocals. The camaraderie of the music comes in all forms down in the crowd. But it doesn't always translate between that crowd and the stage.

The moment you start criticizing your fans, you alienate them. The moment you are rude to a fan, you have lost them. It doesn't make you cool to act like you don't care, or that you are above them. Never tell them or treat them like they don't understand you. Worse, never assume one kind of person is any more a fan of you than another kind. We helped you get where you are. You touch people. Sometimes, they just want to tell you about it because that is the best way they know of to thank you for putting those sprinkles of awesome on their lives. For giving them something so much better to dance to. For writing a song they could feel somewhere down beneath what most people see of them.

NUFAN was that band for a lot of people, and the amazing thing to hear...even in the sadness of his that Tony genuinely understood that concept. He was so incredibly good to his fans. He has passed on from our world and left behind heartbroken fans, but there is light in the darkness. People right now are talking about what an amazing guy he was. That he wrote incredible songs, yes. But he was also a tremendous soul.

People always remember a tremendous soul.

Farewell, Tony. Thank you for getting us.