Monday, June 21, 2010

The Skatalites Surprise at Rockit Room

The Skatalites, Jamaica's original ska band, performed at San Francisco's Rockit Room on Father's Day, June 20, 2010. The band is currently celebrating its 46th year as a group; they've been together nearly as long as Jamaica has been an independent nation. And "Freedom Sound" was the theme the Skatalites began with, as saxophonist Lester Sterling lead the audience in a 10-to-1 countdown chant to start the show and the song.

In a preview I wrote for SF Weekly I stated that Skatalites set lists have become predictable over the years: "The Skatalites still play tunes from their first album, Ska Authentic, cut in 1964, and Celebration Time, recorded soon after ... the set list can be predictable — they've played hits like "Guns of Navarone," "Latin Goes Ska," and "Phoenix City" for decades."

But to my pleasant surprise, their set on Sunday night proved to be anything but rote. "All 'hit sides' no flip sides tonight!" Sterling said repeatedly from the stage, and he wasn't kidding. After opening with the aforementioned "Freedom Sound," they launched into Intensified comp favorite "Dick Tracy," "Eastern Standard Time," "Bridge View," and their Beatles tribute "Should of Known Better," a.k.a. "Independent Anniversary Ska." I kept turning to other seasoned fans and DJs and saying, "Wow, I didn't think they'd play that!" The audience seem equally pleased, applauding enthusiastically between songs.

The band traded solos each song between Sterling and newer members including Azemebo "Zim" Audu (sax), Kevin Batchelor (trumpet) and Andrae Murchison (trombone). The rhythm section was anchored by original Skatalite drummer Lloyd Knibb and consummate session bass man Val Douglas of Chosen Few fame. Unfortunately, singer and ska queen Doreen Shaffer was not a part of the proceedings.

To hear some of their original early classics played with verve and sincerity was a treat. This was no rehashed band going through the motions, but a vibrant, living tribute to Jamaica's first popular music. Long live the Skatalites, a band that can still bring the swing.