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Ska’s ’90s Greats Keep the Genre Alive During a Lull With Ska Is Dead Tour

The fourth edition of the recurrent Ska Is Dead tour lands at Culture Room on Thursday with a bill straight out of 1997. Ska has been reviled and declared dead for about the past 30 years, but it seems its horn-heavy effervescence just can't be dampened. The genre itself predates reggae, coming out of Jamaica in the early '60s and incubating the careers of later stars.

Outside of the island, though, its flickers in the mainstream have, to be honest, come through white punk kids' appropriation of the genre's rhythms into new hybrids. In the late '70s and early '80s, there was the Two-Tone movement in England, concurrent with punk, which pushed for racial unity and gave the world eventual pop stars like the Specials and Madness. Then, in the mid-'90s in America came a similar ska rediscovery, this time without the political platform but again musically hybridized.

The leaders of this so-called "third wave" of ska were undoubtedly the Toasters, whose founder, Rob "Bucket" Hingley, also founded the ultimate American all-ska record label, Moon Ska. Moon put out all the important records of the mid'-90s and even maintained a healthy retail store in Manhattan's East Village before finally shuttering earlier this decade. But Bucket and his band prevail, with a clean, bright sound mostly uncluttered by punk as well as a Two-Tone-spirited message of unity.

Chicago-based Deal's Gone Bad was, like the Toasters, one of the '90s acts closest to so-called "traditional" ska, hewing most closely to the original Jamaican sound. Their tempos were relatively slowed down, and the band featured a strong soul influence. Although they never released anything for Moon in the '90s, in recent years, they signed to Bucket's new label, Megalith.

While the Toasters and Deal's Gone Bad eschewed distortion on the guitars, though, the same can't be said of two of the other bands who share the bill. Mustard Plug, a many-membered act from Grand Rapids, Michigan, specialized in goofy if sweet anthems that often relied on punk-style choruses. Voodoo Glow Skulls too often sounded essentially like a Southern California-style punk band with horns.

In a recurring theme, none of these bands has released a new studio album since 2007. If this tour is trying to prove that ska is something other than dead, it may be time for some new material from the performers.

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Arielle Castillo
Contact: Arielle Castillo

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