Better Than: Feeling sorry for yourself, anywhere
When a portly, fiftysomething man in a floppy, sweaty, leopard print suit rubs his protruding belly and asks, in an impenetrable, working-class Brit accent, if there are any fat people in the house, you've got to laugh. And so there were goofy smiles aplenty last night at Culture Room, where the two-tone ska acts Bad Manners and the English Beat performed. While the Beat boast more commercial success, perhaps, with a string of minor hit singles in the Eighties, it was Bad Manners' first time performing in South Florida.
At least, I think that's what lovable, famously chubby frontman Buster Bloodvessel said -- it was really
difficult to understand his between-song banter. And thus, he was the
star of a show that was surprisingly crowded, with the audience
representing a wide spectrum of age, race, and trans-Atlantic national
And that's been one of the beautiful (ok, that's corny but true) things about the various ska revivals over the years. The genre's detractors, who mostly don't know any better, still remember ska's brief Nineties breakthrough, whose mainstream stars, unfortunately, often appeared in a regrettable burst of Hawaiian shirts and jazz-band dorkiness.
Well listen up, here's a micro-crash-course for the unschooled: Ska existed wayyyy before all that, before reggae, even (OMG!), and was rediscovered, in a second wave, by working-class, well-dressed British kids, in punk's wake in the late Seventies and early Eighties.
It's around this time that bands like Bad Manners and the English Beat (and the Specials, and the Selecter, and Madness, and so on) were born, and their music and audience reflected a particularly time-stamped, British sensibility.
With the encroachment of groups like the National Front, two-tone-era ska (so called for the Specials' 2 Tone Records) preached respect, racial unity, and a reverence for the genre's Jamaican musical roots. All that, wrapped up with a pubby, punky flair.
The funny thing is, because of this reinspection of the past, many of the two-tone bands' biggest fan hits were actually covers. This was good, on one hand, when they were covers of Jamaican classics -- but it also started the unfortunate trend, brought to its painful apotheosis in the late Nineties, of bands taking pop hits and slapping them on top of a ska beat.
Both types were apparent in each bands's set last night. Bad Manners, was, frankly, one of the most yobbish of the two-tone acts, and Bloodvessel brought a hooligan's jolly brio to his performance. Like attracts like, so while this led to a fun knot of whooping, aging English men in the front, it also led, at one point, to a quickly quelled fight in the crowd -- really. Ugh.
Still, he led the generally friendly, astonishingly enthusiastic bounce-along with old Bad Manners favorites. There were all their classic covers: "Sally Brown," "Skinhead Girl," "My Girl Lollipop," and those celebrations of pudge, "Lip Up, Fatty" and "Fatty, Fatty." The originals, like the later "Skaville UK," and the particularly sweet "Special Brew," were of course equally well received. The band played for close to an hour, promising to return.
After that enthusiastic workout, though, the English Beat's appearance was almost anticlimactic. This isn't to detract from the band's performance. It was flawless and uber-professional, bolstered, as also in Bad Manners' case, by a cast of supporting musicians who were barely born at the time of the band's peak.
Perhaps it was just a little too flawless. The band's sound seems to have been smoothed over the years into something of a pop-roots-reggae sound, the kind of thing you might enjoy while eating a blackened mahi-mahi sandwich. Sometimes more like an airtight revue than Bad Manner's sweaty, unpolished rave-up, the Beat's act thankfully showed thrilling life when it hit its punkiest material, numbers like "Hands Off, She's Mine" and "Twist and Crawl." It was then that the Beat's teeth reappeared, and two-tone ska's underlying themes of burbling social unrest and urban ennui once again seemed relevant, all wrapped up in a deceptively shiny, danceable package.
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Personal Bias: Ten to 12 years ago, I would have been right up front at this show, too, although probably in a plaid skirt. But to be honest, the English Beat were always my least favorite of the 2tone-era acts.
Random Detail: A meaty, tough, Suicidal-Tendencies-type dude at one point stripped off his shirt, only to reveal a large Walt Jabsco tattoo spanning his entire left upper arm. Sweet!
By the Way: The Beat's current tour celebrates the band's 30th anniversary, and the musicians have announced plans for a new studio album this year.