Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Rocksteady Seven: A sneak peak of Friends and Enemies, and an interview with David Hillyard

Earlier in the year, I sent a message to someone in booking/managing/wrangling at the Slackers camp to conduct an interview with all or part of the band. I'm a fan. That's no secret to any of you folks who read my ramblings and listen to my show, and getting to put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) in regards to this music I love is gift enough, but getting to involve the band that started it all for me and continues to keep me hooked? Amazing. I was told yes, sure. Send over some questions.

Unfortunately, I had no idea who would be answering these questions. Being that there are such diverse talents and personalities in this band, there was no way I could do anything but send several generic questions over and pray I would not be judged for how boring they probably were. It was David Hillyard, Slackers saxophonist and scene legend that got back to me. He did the best anyone could with my impersonal, generic, and probably boring inquiries, and I am forever thankful to him for that. I have since then been hoping to redeem myself.

Fast forward to last week, and I had a message from the amazing Mr. Hillyard in my inbox with some info on the new Rocksteady Seven album. The album, Friends and Enemies, is due out December 4th on Whatevski Records and was recorded over the course of a day at Seaside Studios in Brooklyn. No over-dubs. It maintains the same raw, true flavor we have come to expect. I was happy to debut the track "Evil" on my show this past week, and not surprisingly fielded rave reviews from my listeners in the days that followed. I am beyond excited to get my hands on the full album after its release in a few short weeks. You can bet you will be hearing a lot more of it from me.

When I first heard the Rocksteady Seven's first album Playtime, I was immediately addicted. It remains one of the most played albums in my home, in my car, and in my headphones while tapping away mundane duties at work. Diverse and raw with a ska-jazz-blues-groove straight through, it's similar enough track to track to maintain interest, but different enough that you never get bored. Far from it. Everything I heard after that held the same truths, and I really don't put together a show without something from the Rocksteady Seven every week. On what I have heard so far of Friends and Enemies, I can give you my word that you will not be disappointed.

Dave Hillyard was nice enough to let me pick his brain a bit (in a much more direct and specific fashion than in my previous interview, thank goodness...) about his work, his influences, and what keeps him moving along as one of the most well talented and well respected musicians in the modern ska scene to this day.

So first and foremost, what was it that inspired you to pick up a saxophone in this first place?

Hillard: I heard Saxa from the Beat. It was his saxophone tone that made me want to play. He started what became an obsession.

What have been some of the most prominent musical influences for you throughout your career thus far?

Hillyard: I started out listening to 2 Tone era ska and then I got into the older music. I got into the Skatalites, Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff, the Maytals, Heptones, Justin Hines, Count Ossie....lots and lots of Jamaican music. I was friends with a studio one distributor in San Diego where I grew up and I would go over to his house and listen to and buy tons of records.
The Skatalites turned me onto jazz and instrumental music in general. I started listening to American jazz artists like John Coltrane, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Thelonius Monk, Miles much music. I listen to jazz from the 1920s up until the present all the time.
I also got really into Soul, RnB and Blues. The Impressions, the Temptations, Lee Allen, Howling Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Otis Redding, Charlie Whitehead, Lee Dorsey, Allen Touissaint...there is just so much music there.
So in a funny way I grew up on English and Jamaican musicians and then they introduced me to American artists and for that matter, a whole wide world of music.
Ska music got me into Latin and Brazilian music.
More recently I’ve been listening to lots of music from different parts of Africa like Getachew Mekurya, Alemeyehu Eschete, Fela Kuti, and Ignaze Da Souza.
I've also been fortunate enough to be around some great musicians in person. Besides all the guys my age I played with in bands, there are older guys like Larry McDonald who is a big mentor to me. Glen Adams was a big mentor to me. I was lucky enough to hang out with Tommy and Roland several times. They taught me stuff about saxophone and gave me exercises to practice. Roy Campbell, the trumpet player, was also a big influence on me in terms of how to improvise.

The Slackers have demonstrated a notable staying power within the ska scene. You still make great music, and you still put on amazing live shows. What do you think is the reason behind that?

Hillyard: Well, I'm glad you think that. I'm not exactly sure what our secret is to our longevity, maybe its better that I don't figure it out. For myself, it’s that I love what I do. I try to work on my playing and make sure that I'm always improving myself in some way. I love playing gigs, travelling, seeing the world. So as long as I keep on enjoying doing that I think the shows will be ok.

The Question is up for re-release on vinyl, and I saw that you are playing the album in its entirety in Miami. What is it like to revisit songs you guys wrote and recorded so long ago? There are some that don’t really get played out all too often. Will you be taking some of those songs and throwing them into live show rotation for all the holiday tour shows? 
Hillyard: Well, there are only 4 songs that we definitely haven't been playing at all from the Question; Power, Motor City, the Mummy, and Do You Know. Considering that its an 18 song album that we put out 14 years ago, I think that's pretty amazing.
I mean the question has 'have the time' on it, so we play that all the time.
We try to rotate our songs around a fair amount. We don’t want people to come back 6 months later and see us doing the same show.
For me, its fun to play the old tunes and I appreciate the fact that people like the songs. Its a great feeling that someone likes your music.
On the other hand, I always like playing new tunes. I like recording new music. I like writing new tunes. It makes me feel like I'm alive.
So I guess its all about finding a balance between the old and the new.
I'm excited that we are going to get a chance to reissue the vinyl on Big Tunes. The original pressing was only for 250 copies and sold out a long time ago.

I got to see you with The Void Union in Stanhope earlier this year, and it was amazing. I read that you joined them on a few shows. Any plans to work with them again?
Hillyard: I have known a bunch of the Void Union guys as they came up playing with Westbound Train. Rich Graiko, their trumpet player, has also been playing with Rocksteady 7 in NYC for the last 4 years or so.
I have done some guest cameos on their recent albums. Took a solo here and there. Then we did a gig up in Boston a couple years back where me and Django were special guests with them. We followed that up with the recent tour.
It was fun for me because I could just focus on playing the music. I didn't have to deal with lodging or business or anything except for playing the music. So it was just a real fun joyful couple days for me.

How did the Rocksteady Seven initially come about?
Hillyard: I had a lot of tunes that weren't getting played with the Slackers and before that with Hepcat. I had been impressed with what Django had done with Stubborn All-Stars, so I wanted to try to do a band that was playing all my tunes. I had never done that before.
I met Larry McDonald at a Skatalites show in New York City. I heard what he was playing and had the realization of how I wanted the band to sound. Me and Larry talked a lot that night and I realized we were into a lot of the same music and had a lot of the same ideas about how you can mix jazz-reggae-ska-latin and other stuff together.

How was it working on the new album?
Hillyard: It was cool. I've made my last 2 albums at Seaside in Brooklyn. We record everything live with only minimal overdubs. On this most recent album, FRIENDS AND ENEMIES, there is only 1. Hehehehe.
I'm going for a direct raw sound. Its about capturing a moment.

I see you have dates set with them for Europe in the New Year. Are there any plans for US dates after that?
Hillyard: Well, the tough thing about Rocksteady 7 is that everyone in the band, including myself always has other commitments. So I'm always juggling musicians. Its really as much a musical concept as much as a band.
The commonality is me and Larry.
I got my NYC group with guys like Rich Graiko, Justin Rothberg, and Dan Jeselsohn.
Right now, I have my European touring group of Mr Tbone and guys from the Caroloregians and Moon Invaders. And I also have my west coast touring group of Clint Sobolik, Christian Vela, Jimmy Boom, and Kincaid Smith. 
My immediate plan is to tour with the European group in January. I'm gonna do some NYC dates in Febuary. Then hopefully do some West Coast dates in spring.
This is in between the Slackers touring schedule. So its a busy life!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Dropsteppers - Get Up In It

Living in the shadow of New York City my whole life has been a blessing. Culture, art, energy, great music, legendary venues, amazing food, and better people watching than you can find almost anywhere else. This became especially true when my ears found ska music in the mid-90's. So much comes out of New York in every genre, and I think it's really made it's name in ska music very well known and well defined. However, it's bright light of awesomeness has blocked my view of what's going on in the Midwest in this glorious music scene...and I feel ashamed! BAD SKA GIRL, Amanda. BAD. There is this whole buzzing beautiful world of dancing just beyond our tri-state area, and every time I stumble into another great band, it's like Christmas for me. This happened again a few months ago.

For years, I never really knew that anything but Brenda and Brandon Walsh came out of Minnesota. (you can slap me for that comment) Boy, was I fucking wrong. But I didn't know there was a ska scene. I didn't know it was buzzing so loud. It finally reached my ears.

I heard the Prizefighters, and I was blown away. You can read my review of these amazing folks HERE. Thankfully, it seems the magic doesn't stop there. Not hardly! Someone dropped the album Get Up In It by the Dropsteppers in my lap a few months ago, and that was it. I am sold. I want to go to Minnesota. I need to go to Minnesota.

The band formed in 2010 according to their website, and are comprised of Albert Perez on guitar, Doug Otto on organ and vocals, Tom McDowall on vocals and guitar, Christopher Allen Gray on drums and vocals, Paul Perez on percussion and vocals, Eric Struve on bass. This is not a thrown together batch of lazy guys. This is a mashing of talent from start to finish, and they have expertly blended each individually perfect section of this band into an amazing sound that I personally cannot get enough of. A blending of the traditional flavors of reggae, rocksteady, and soul with a modern feel that sets them apart and brings them right to the front.

If you are a listener to my show and my podcast, you have heard the song Extraordinary Woman. You have probably heard it every week since I got my hands on it. I can't stop playing it. First of all, let me point out that the bass lines on this entire album are great...but on this song, it's nothing short of hot and helps to define this track. It's layered under the organ, percussion, and guitar in a very precise mix. The vocals are a huge part of what makes the song as catchy as it is as well. The lead is great, the backups and impossible not to sing along with. It's one of those songs that makes me wonder who it was written for...and wish it was me. It's soulful. It's catchy. It will move you.

My other favorite on the album is Hot Mess. This has become my happy song lately. It's fun! The vocals and lyrics are great on their own...Tom McDowall is a really great voice for this music. But the rest of the guys make this song addicting. Those hot bass lines are there, the organ, the guitar, the perfectly placed percussion. The backup vocals. And see if you can listen to it all the way through and not dance. I bet you can't. If you can, check your pulse. I think you might be dead. Who doesn't want someone singing that you make them a hot mess in your presence? In a good way! I love love LOVE this song.

Want a bit of a slower groove? Listen to Foolish Pride. Straight up rocksteady sound blended with those soulful vocals and steady bass line, and then peppered with every other delicious aspect of what makes this such a great album. It's music you don't just hear. It's music you feel right down to the deepest spots...those ones that make you start moving.

The Dropsteppers set themselves apart with their traditional flavor, but they blend it so well with a modern energy. It's really an impressive sound and it's consistently good throughout the album from start to finish. They keep it fresh from track to track without that overlapping boredom that tends to find itself into the work of other artists going for the same sound. No, these gentlemen mastered it on this record.

I don't know how much begging I need to do to get these guys out to New Jersey and New York, but you can bet your sweet ass I am going to find out. I have listened to this album so much, it's probably chiseled into the inside of my skull at this point, and I crave a live show. From what I hear, they do just as well live as they do in the studio. Otherwise, it looks like I am paying a visit to Minnesota this winter. Guess I better pick up those new snow boots...

If you are lucky enough to be out that way, you can check these guys out November 29th at Triple Rock Social Club with Deals Gone Bad and Stop Drop. You can get more information about that show HERE

The album Get Up In it by the Dropsteppers is available on Megalith Records and you can find it at CD Baby RIGHT HERE.

You can check out more about The Dropsteppers at their website HERE

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Pinstripes - I

My Sunday mornings, unless coupled with a hangover, are my favorites. I wake up whenever my body stirs from slumber (or the cat steps on my face), stumble downstairs in my robe and pajamas, and start my coffee.  Once a cup or so is consumed and that sweet, sweet blood of life also known as caffeine is streaming through my veins, I like to crank up something good and loud and full of soul and dance to wake my ass up and fill me with life while I do my mundane New Jersey suburb Sunday morning chores. It has to be good. It has to move me. It has to remind me that the world is alive and buzzing around me and I woke up this morning...I should be doing nothing less than dancing,

So this is when I usually like to test out new music. My mind is rested and clear, and craving something that will make me move. I waited until a Sunday morning to pop in The Pinstripes for the first time. I don't think I even needed the caffeine. WOW. This album exploded all over me, and I have been nothing short of addicted to it since. They have such fresh energy, and I am loving the exhilarated dancing in my home, in my car, at my desk, and on my radio show and podcast that is unavoidable from start to finish. I figured it high time I share this new found love of mine with the world. This band is incredible.

The Pinstripes hail from Cincinnati, OH. Now, I am from the great state of New Jersey, and my travels west include Pennsylvania, Arizona, and California. Anything between that has been a mystery to me aside from grammar school social studies, a few landmarks, and what I see on FoodTV...and what a shame. The ska music that is coming out of those Midwestern states is blowing me away, and these guys are a perfect example.

From the moment the album starts, it's this great mix of ska and soul in an exploding power pack that throws reggae beat-laden shrapnel at you while shaking your body with impossible to ignore dance flavor. It's a start to finish kick you in the ass and get you moving album of it's own breed, and not just some one taste ska's so many variations.

The song Might Be Her Fool kicks it off hard.

I have been playing the ever loving hell out of this song on my radio show. It's become a Sunday morning staple for me. It's the first song I heard from this ridiculously talented batch of gentlemen, and has me clamoring for a live show. Listen to this song first. It bursts through the door and grabs your attention, and has remained my favorite, followed by Alright Baby. An equally well balanced and soulful song, it highlights how well The Pinstripes progress from start to finish on a song. How all of their parts blend. How fucking amazing these guys are as musicians. I don't know how anyone could listen to this and not be moving. It's not humanly possible.

Click on over to Mother, and check out the vocals. Gorgeous harmonies over that smooth brass with an absolutely infectious and complete move-your-body groove. I love anyone that understands the masterful technique of using vocals as their own instrument. The Pinstripes get it. Layered and flowing, powerful and sexy, and they build with the song through to the end. It's so good.

A sextet of brilliant music makers, The Pinstripes are comprised of Mike Sarason on vocals and sax, Leonardo Murcia on vocals and trombone, Matt Kursmark on guitar, Chris Grannen on bass, John Bertke on drums, and Sam White on trumpet. Actively playing and touring since 2003, according to their website which you can find HERE, they have gone through the usual lineup changes and transitions that any extraordinary band perfecting a sound does. Whatever the road they took to get here, they found that master sound, and they do it well.

It's not one genre of ska either. The Pinstripes take you from one breed of groove all the way across the board. It's not one of those albums you will listen to and be bored of by the third track. In fact, the first three tracks sound so different from one another, you will be sitting and waiting for the fourth track wondering what in the hell these guys can throw at you now. Or at least I did. And every song was more delicious than the last. This is a band with staying power. Real, raw talent. It's highly impressive.

Speaking of impressive, the song I'll Be Waiting is this pop/soul ska hybrid that shines a beautiful glaring light on just what these guys can do. How they can take a song and pick it up, turn it around, flip it over, and take it in three different directions before ending it. Great bass layered under warm but crisp brass, perfectly placed drum beats and sweet guitar. Then those amazing vocals over top like buttercream. But then right around two and a half minutes in, the song changes into this piece of sensual, powerful straight up soul music...building in intensity and emotion to the end before climaxing quietly and sweetly. Probably would cuddle you and give you cab fare too.

Pinstripes, you guys have it. You have the talent, the musical integrity, and the multifaceted flavor. I need to get my ass to Ohio promptly because I, I NEED to see these guys live. I can't imagine their live show to be anything short of fucking incredible. Be expecting me in the new year, gentlemen. For now, you can hear something from their album I on my show every week.

Download the album I for $8 HERE

You can find The Pinstripes on Facebook HERE.

You can get music and other good stuff from The Pinstripes HERE

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Obi Fernandez - Confessions, Waves and the Garden State

Its no mystery that I am a Jersey girl, through and through. Listen to my radio show or my podcast, and you can hear it. It's not just in what I talk endless stories of show travels over bridges and tunnels to New York and Philadelphia...its also that I have the WORST North Jersey accent, and I can't hide it if I try. It gets worse if I have been drinking too. Hand me a copy of Weird NJ to read while I eat my taylor ham sandwich in an all night diner, and I couldn't be happier. I am fiercely defensive of my home state, and when someone does something great from our grounds, it's pride I can't even hope to properly describe.

Obi Fernandez, man, you done good.

My dear friend and fellow ska podcaster Randy from Ska Crazy got me into Westbound Train not that long ago. An amazing band from top to bottom, but my favorite aspect of the band was always the vocals. There was just so much soul in the way Obi Fernandez sings, and it set them apart from other ska bands. As a singer myself, I tend to focus on vocals even when I try not to. It's just where my ear goes. More than that though, I fall in love with them. They get under my skin and trickle right into my soul when they are done right, and they ruin a song entirely when they are done wrong. Obi Fernandez does it right. So very right. When I heard chatter about Obi doing a solo record, my excitement was probably tangible.

Then I got to hear the song The Color of Your Voice.

Good god.

It was released as a teaser a few months ago, and I clicked that link over and over and over again that day. To this very moment, it's a song I cannot get enough of. Those soulful vocals I adore are there. I have no idea what inspired the lyrics, but damn if I don't wish someone was singing it about me. Even if it's not good. It's just beautiful. The female backups give it a retro flare that makes me think of mod dresses and high hair with white gloves on pretty ladies with synchronized hip movements. I am so in love with this track. But it in no way stops there.

Obi Fernandez is a versatile artist. His style is one that branches out like a willow tree across a wide spectrum of styles, but his sound is so much his own at the same time. This album, Confession, Waves and the Garden State, has many different elements of music stacked up like a beautiful audible game of Jenga that never falls. There is a very prevalent reggae flavor through songs like Check Your Time, Have You Ever, and Don't Turn away. Those gorgeous backup vocals are threaded throughout the album. Obi's unique and soulful voice is not overpowering on the mix at all, but because of how good it rises to the top no matter what.

Then you get to a song like Only A Fool. This song would be at home everywhere from mainstream satellite alternative radio stations to the AM radio in a mid 70's sedan. It's a gorgeous layer of vocals, guitar, brass, and bass. Soft and melodic, but intensely emotional in it's presentation. Ugly Comes Out does a similar dance around different styles before it lands squarely on being simply amazing.

My other favorite track on the album is Pills. Lyrically, vocally, beat. It has it all. It grabs you in the beginning and carries you along to the end, and it's the kind of song you are disappointed about being over. You want more. That really sums up the entire album. It's so good, you are sad when you get to the end. So if you are like me, you simply start it over again. This album gets a lot of attention from me. I can't hope to sing as well as Obi Fernandez does, but damn if I don't sing along with every word on this album anyway. And loud. I can't help it. You won't be able to either.

Have I gushed enough? It really is THAT good. If you don't have Confessions, Waves and the Garden State yet, you need it. You can get it HERE and you should do so immediately. Digital and CD are available.

You can also follow Obi Fernandez on Facebook here.

The Pandemics - Brain on Tap

New York City is a veritable cornucopia of music and culture. The music, the art, the all radiates with an aura of gritty determination that won't wash off. It's unique energy permeates everything that bleeds from between it's concrete structures and dark clubs and bars. I am in love with New York City. I always will be. It's been a mecca of ska and punk music over the last bunch of decades, and my favorite place to escape New Jersey and run to for a recharge of my soul.

Bands in New York have an energy that is almost tangible, and nearly impossible to describe. It varies band to band, scene to scene...but it's constant. Every time I get into a new one, I can detect it almost immediately. It's what gets me dancing it sitting at my desk, driving in my car, doing my dishes, putting my radio show and podcast together, everything where the music is filling my ears. Thank fucking goodness for New York City.

This is everything that fills my soul, my ears, my brain when I listen to The Pandemics.

It's an eight piece band of talented individual musicians creating high energy ska with flavors of jazz and punk. Vocals are raspy with dirty, gritty, delicious soul and a side of fun. Brass is perfectly layered and accented throughout the album. Bass lines are the groove threaded throughout. Their most recent album, Brain On Tap, is a great mix of styles that highlight seemingly every aspect of what puts this band together. There are highlights of percussion, brass, vocals, bass, guitar, and excellent meshings of each intricate puzzle piece. I dig it, and I dig it hard.

I find that I get OBSESSED with good music when I find it. Listening to it over and over and over again until its memorized and very much ingrained in ever corner of my mind. It's something I always do before I write about a band as well. I want to know it inside and out, piece by piece, before I will go slapping my opinions all over it. I have had this CD in my car, I have had it up on Spotify at work, and with every listen, I like it a little more. I also hear something I missed in the last listen.

The thing I like most about this album is that it's fun. I know that sounds simple and trite for someone who is supposed to be disecting an album and a band for a review with big words and precise pointers, but seriously...its just fucking FUN! From track to track, it's completely dancable... and yes that is a word. You can lay yourself on almost any song and start shaking your hips and bouncing your head. Rhumba De Los Muertos...I can't wait to hear that song live. It's fun, but it's sexy as hell too the way the bass and guitar lead into those sultry horns. It's got a groove that bounces around a bit, and the vocals are sung deep. Then it picks up to take you out. I love it!

Sleepy Sunday (New York City) is a slower groove, but probably my favorite song on the album to sing a long with. Whole lot of horns, a little keys in the background, great bass, great vocals. Skip back to Hey You! and put those dancing pants back on. What great energy. Scream along, rock out. It shows how versatile the Pandemics are as a band. No one trick pony...they can bridge difference styles and different flavors with precision. I was impressed.

The title track Brain On Tap is great too...brings you in with guitar and drops you right into the horns. See if you can get through this song without dancing. I can't. I have it on in my headphones right now, and my tush is all over the place. The vocals are great, the beat is infectious, and I would imagine this is something of a crowd favorite at live shows with how singable it is. I know I know...I'm a bad ska girl. I have not been able to catch the Pandemics live yet. It's on my calendar as we speak. They have a show coming up at Characters NYC on November 10th. You can get information about the show HERE. You should go. I am. You can buy me a cocktail.

I was able to hang out with trombone player and vocalist for the Pandemics, Chris Malone, at the New York date of the recent round of Skalapalooza shows. Chris is a great guy to hang at a show with and swap stories with. I lost him somewhere during Sammy Kay's set, and found him again while I was harassing Agent Jay. He helped me ring in my 34th birthday that night, and didn't call me old at all. He is alright in my book.

That night, he handed me the Brain on Tap cd, and I can honestly say it has not left my car since. It's in the cd player, getting me through North Jersey rush hour traffic and gas lines and making people look at me funny at stop lights because I am dancing and singing along where I sit. I can't wait to check these guys out live this weekend...

Find more information on The Pandemics on their website here.

The Pandemics on Facebook.