Monday, March 29, 2010

Steady Rocking: The Bay Area Rocksteady Revival

The following is an extended version of a piece that originally ran in the SF Weekly on December 16, 2009. Please visit the band links for more information on their upcoming shows.

It’s Saturday night at Koko Cocktails in the Tenderloin and 39 year-old Adam Tadesse is on the decks spinning a bouncy late-60s tune by Jamaican pioneer Prince Buster. It’s a reggae cover version of American soulman Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood” and the small crowd in the cozy bar is nodding along. He follows up with singer Pat Kelly’s early-‘70s cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears” and dancers rush the decks to ask who did the song.

Tadesse’s monthly “Fire Corner” night is one of a half-dozen regular San Francisco events exploring vintage Jamaican music. With several new bands stoking interest, the City is witnessing another ska, rocksteady and early reggae revival. But will it last?

The latest revival has roots in previous decades both in the Bay and abroad. Jamaica’s jazz-influenced ska style first appeared around 1956. A decade later the rhythm slowed and was branded rocksteady. That soulful style lasted just two years and was usurped in 1969 by organ-heavy early reggae music, which was embraced by working class British skinhead youth.

England experienced a ska revival from 1979 to ‘83 when punk collided with Jamaican sounds and birthed 2-Tone, while America’s so-called ‘Third Wave’ ska craze hit in the mid-80s and early-90s with acts like Berkeley’s Uptones, LA’s Untouchables and Hepcat. Myriad hybrid pop and punk ska bands such as Fishbone, Operation Ivy and No Doubt followed. Currently, groups like LA’s Aggrolites plus SF’s Titan Ups and The Impalers (pictured at top) are recharging the organ-y early reggae sound.

Tadesse cut his teeth in LA ska-punk band Grandpa Knucklehead, began collecting rare Jamaican 45s and founded the Revival Sound System in 2004. He DJs at “Fire Corner,” monthly Make Out Room night “Festival 68,” and hosts KUSF’s early-reggae program “Wake The Town” Thursdays at 10 p.m.

“Five years ago there was nothing but dancehall reggae [in San Francisco], explains Tedesse. “The rocksteady and early reggae community has grown a lot recently, although it has been a slow process.

Like Tadesse, the main DJs are mostly in their mid-30s, fervent record collectors and spent time in mod, ska, skinhead or Vespa scooter crews. Music publicist and writer Mark “DJ Dukey” Gorney, who ran Dukey’s Disco at Nickie's BBQ from 1991-93, recalls looking on Yelp for rocksteady nights in SF a few years back. “That's how I met Adam; we teamed up with Shawn Atkinson for the ‘Upsetter’ [skinhead reggae nights] at Mad Dog pub in the late ‘90s.”

Gorney and Tedesse also met club entrepreneur Kirk Harper and “Dr. Scott” Bulleit who was doing “Intensified” at the Casanova Lounge. Over the past two years vintage Jamaican club nights have flourished. Andrew Rush started monthly nights “Version Excursion” and “Festival 68” at the Make Out Room. Meanwhile, Gorney and friend Bryan Martin, who chronicles events on his San Francisco Vintage Reggae Society blog, spin at The Skylark’s weekly “Music Like Dirt” happy hour. Gorney adds, “As they say in Jamaica, ‘Old time something come back again.’”

Another major event is Harper’s Concrete Jungle night, second Saturdays at The Knockout on Mission Street. “The Selecter DJ Kirk” Harper co-founded and managed Mr. Fives and 330 Ritch Street venues as well as the Secret Society Scooter Club. He and partner DJ Omar from Popscene waited for the right time to start Concrete Jungle. “It was a party we wanted to do five years ago, but the whole Third Wave ska era gave [the music] a bad name,” he laments. “Other than Hepcat, there were very few good bands.”

But since their launch 18 months ago things have gone well, attracting up 200 people per event and their aim is to expand the audience. “2-Tone is the hook and the look that make [the party] cool and fun,” he says. “But in addition to classic rocksteady, reggae and 2-Tone, we mix in artists from that era who had a ska feel or influence, like Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello or Ian Dury.” Harper and Concrete Jungle co-present the Hepcat show a Slims on December 19, 2009.

SF’s ska/rocksteady clubs might have great DJs and bands but the audiences are far from diverse. Although a few Jamaicans attend his gigs, Tadesse says for the most part the crowds are older and white. “It would be nice to see some more people of color come out,” he says. “I’ve noticed that once folks come check it out they absolutely love the sound and ask when we’ll be playing next.”

Harper thinks younger bands could be the key to a vital scene. “If a band in their young-20s plays this sound their going to do great – they’ll be the Hepcat of this era.”

As for local bands Gorney says, “The Titan-Ups, The Impalers and Coup de Ska are our current skabassadors.” The seven-piece Titan Ups formed a year ago and will open for Jamaican legends The Skatalites in January.

Titan-Ups guitarist Mikel Davenport explains that their members come from diverse local bands like Overwhelming Colorfast, Oranger and Swirl Happy and play mostly classic Jamaican covers. “Bob [Reed] our front man has a nice big voice and sounds a like Toots [Hibbert],” says Davenport. “We play a few Maytals covers, Delroy Wilson, The Melodians and other greats from the era.”

The Titan Ups along with other new bands plus all the DJs are optimistic about the rocksteady’s future in the Bay. Martin notes that the various DJs help promote each other’s nights. “We’re working to make sure that the revival sound will always be around,” he says, while Tadesse has been flooded with requests to play his nights

“We have people from Jamaica, Japan, Europe and all over the US wanting to come spin at our nights. The Bay Area is now on the early reggae map and I couldn't be happier.”

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