A ska dance party is a great way to start the year. The two bands had very different perspectives on ska. The Dendrites, out of Denver, aimed for a classic '70s style instrumental ska groove, while the Slackers played their wonderful retro blend of soulful ska. Both bands were tight and got the crowd dancing. The only thing that would have made it better would be if there had been a little cross pollination with members from either band sitting in with the other, because each had their own flavor.
The DendritesWhile there have been plenty of hit instrumental records over the years. it's tough for a purely instrumental pop music band to make its mark. Sure, jazz bands and others do it all the time, but they have lots of room to work with. For a pop, blues, or ska band to pull it off, they need to be phenomenal players. Even then, they must have the charisma and personality to build rapport and stage presence. It's easier with vocals -- there's a clearer way to send a message and connect. It's hard to leave all of that to the music alone.
Last night, though, the Dendrites showed no signs of handicap in their fine set. The sound of the horns playing a pre-show warmup, sparked anticipation in the crowd. The band assaulted the stage with a formidable wall of horns. Kicking off their set with Gumbo Hustle, they used the song as an extended introduction to the band. All of the musicians got the chance to show off their chops. Andy McClellan's rollicking drumwork was outstanding. Like many unsung ska drummers, his beat was somewhat buried by the horns, but there were enough drop out moments to really appreciate his detailed tom work.
The other players are just as impressive. In particular, bass player Alex Wynn was amazing; I loved how he could cover the beat and still throw in such intricate fills. The band was by no means introspective, though. In addition to their playing skills, both sax player Mont Brown and guitarist Kyle Gollob got their personalities across. One of the percussionists, Nick Dolan, also took on the role of emcee, running up to the front to goad the audience. This contributed a lot to their stage presence.
For the most part, the Dendrites played a classic 2 Tone style of ska. Songs like Flight School captured the moody sound of the Specials. They pulled in updated sounds, with songs like Armed and Opposed, which were reminiscent of Dire Straits or the Police. Later, on When Was Wednesday, they nailed a bluesy ska soul sound that had a deeper retro vibe. This kind of stylistic flexibility is a big part of what made their set so interesting.
The SlackersThe Slackers always had a distinct take on ska, rooted in the early '60s. Much like the original ska, they took early R&B and fused it to the off beat chank rhythm. They made it their own by blending in more soul and early rock sounds. They've also flirted with reggae and rock steady sounds to round things out. It's been a while since they've been in Colorado and I was excited to hear them again. While they have plenty of good albums, they've made their reputation with their high energy live shows.
Last night was no exception. The rhythm section started things off, but within seconds, the rest of the band was on stage and pounding out Keep Him Away. After the avalanche of brass from the Dendrites, the Slacker's horns sounded thinner, but their exuberance soon drove off the comparison.
The chemistry was perfect as trombonist Glen Pine and keyboard player Vic Ruggiero shared front man duties. Their voices contrasted, with Pine's soulful crooning and Ruggiero's more nasal punch. Glen Pine has clearly developed over years. During the show, he evoked a bit of Frank Sinatra and some of the other greats from that era. He looked so casual as he worked the audience, hitting each nuanced gesture. But he'd always be locked into the groove to come in and nail the horn parts with sax player Dave Hillyard. Similarly, Ruggiero's wise guy vibe was loose and easy, but his keyboard work was tight. His phrasing sounded a bit like Elvis Costello. The balance of styles was amazing.
The band hit a lot of the crowd favorites, like Crazy, Every Day is Sunday, and The Same Everyday. The transitions were smooth and flowing. My favorite song was Cheated, where Marcus Geard (bass) and Jay Nugent (guitar) coordinated a perfectly twinned line during the break. Pine's leering trombone offered a counterpoint to Ruggerio's sullen vocals. It was a great moment. Speaking of special moments, we also got to witness an on-stage proposal (she said "yes"), just adding to the spectacle.
The Slackers played a good long set and briefly stepped offstage. They didn't make us wait long at all, though, before they came back for nice long encore. Dave Hillyard even got a chance to sing one. The closer was a wonderful cover of Sam Cooke's Cupid. Despite throwing in the ska beat, the Slackers stayed close in feel to the original. Ears ringing, it was a skanking good time.
More photos on my Flickr.