Day two: Sierra Leone Refugee All Starswith Blackberry Wood and Jon Middleton at Ship Point
Hearing Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars’ music is an experience in itself, and so is seeing them live, but embracing their story is another thing altogether.
Day two of the 14th Annual Victoria Ska Festival featured the second of its three free performances. The show kicked off with a set from Jon Middleton, the singer/songwriter known to many as the frontman of Jon and Roy, the popular Victoria group who has graced festival stages all over Canada with their unique blend of mellow folk and beach-ready reggae.
Middleton’s set featured a series of tracks from his solo records as well as a myriad of reggae classics by artists such as Burning Spear, Toots and the Maytals, and Bob Marley. Equipped with just an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, Middleton serenaded the sunlit harbour crowd. His impressive singing ranged from subtle and sweet in the galloping folk tunes, to rough and soulful when dropping the funky reggae. It was a smooth and comfortable contrast to the frantic dance-party which followed.
Up next was Blackberry Wood, a Vancouver group who describes their music as “Alt-country gypsy ragtime circus music.” I think everybody in attendance would agree with this description. Though the group isn’t necessarily cut from the Jamaican cloth of ska, reggae, and rocksteady, they were completely at home on this year’s lineup. Their music featured blistering tempos, loads of guitar up-strokes, and a two-piece horn section. They also nailed a true-to-form cover of the Prince Buster classic, “One Step Beyond.”
If Blackberry Wood has a speciality, it’s crowd interaction. It’s one thing to get people to jump up and down or participate in a call-and-response chant, but the group got the crowd to lie on their backs, stick their legs up in the air, and do “the bicycle,” a trick they also pulled at last year’s Skafest. Clad in top hats, tailcoats, rainbow stockings, fishnets, and tutus, the band was also visually unique, if not completely insane.
As the sun started to retreat, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars took the stage. The group is somewhat of a collective, featuring well over a dozen members on their records, but the Skafest crowd was treated to an abbreviated six-piece lineup. Sporting a suiting name, the members of the group are refugees from Sierra Leone who escaped their country’s horrific civil war by relocating to camps in the neighbouring country of Guinea. Songwriter/frontman Reuben Koroma and guitarist Franco Langba formed the band in one of these camps, performing music on beat-up old guitars and handmade percussion (Langba has unfortunately since passed away). Their vision was captured in the acclaimed 2005 documentary, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, which was screened a few weeks ago at a Skafest movie night. Considering their harsh beginnings, the amount of happiness and joy they exude on stage is nothing short of inspirational. These are people who are truly grateful for the gift of music.
Their set flip-flopped between bubbly afro-beat and thick reggae on a seemingly song-to-song basis, and the group has absolutely mastered both styles. The afro tunes had that perfect clean guitar tone, like pure energy was being finger-picked out of the strings. Then the Jamaican-inspired compositions had those ground-shaking feel-it-in-your-chest bass lines that every reggae band craves. The members of the band could also bust a move. Koroma pulled off some serious jumps and spins, and percussionist/MC/singer “Black Nature” Kamara showed the crowd how booty-shaking is done. The crowd responded accordingly, the harbour packed with Victoria locals and out-of-towners shuffling back and forth to every track. I turned to my buddy a few songs in and he summed it up perfectly: “I haven’t stopped smiling since they started playing.”
With three diverse acts, one a local favourite, one from across the Georgia Straight, and the one from the other end of the globe, Skafest proved how special a local event it is. Then once you bring in the ticket price of zero dollars, and one of the most gorgeous outdoor settings imaginable (the lit-up legislature buildings act as a suiting backdrop), you get a vibe that very few musical events can create. The scary thing? There were still three more days to the festival.
And it got better.
Day Three: Tanya Stephens with Blitz the Ambassador, Natural Flavas, Dope Soda and Elaine Lil’ Bit Shepherd at Ship Point
It must be quite the musical journey to be a member of Natural Flavas. The Vancouver reggae group has a significant catalogue of original music, which they have routinely performed around BC over the past four years, but their biggest claim to fame is backing up the legends of the genre. Learning a set-list of foreign material in a presumably short period of time, the group backed Leroy “Heptone” Sibbles at last year’s Skafest, and did the same two years previous with “Mr. Rocksteady” Ken Boothe. This year their duty was to back Dancehall queen Tanya Stephens, a performance which did not disappoint.
Day three of the Victoria Skafest dropped down again in its gorgeous Ship’s Point venue, the show starting with back-to-back performances by Vancouver’s Gisto and Elaine “Lil Bit” Shepherd. Naturally, both singers were backed by the Flavas. The two artists sang a mash-up of the roots and dancehall strands of reggae, with Gisto primarily utilizing toasting and rapping styles, and the Juno-award-winning Shepherd mixing up the patois with some sultry singing. The day was still young, and the vast majority of the audience watched from the beverage garden and bleachers, but with sunny reggae vibes to match the blue sky up above, the singers impressed with their groovy styles.
Up next was Nanaimo’s Dope Soda. Filling in for New York-based Ghanian rapper Blitz the Ambassador, who was moved to the after-party due to a travel delay, the band had big shoes to fill. As anybody who attended the after-party (or saw him at last year’s festival) would tell you, Blitz is an enigmatic performer, but the local boys did just fine filling the void with a diverse mix of reggae, dancehall, ska, dub, funk, and even touches of punk. The band may be limited a bit vocally, but made up for it effortlessly with a stone-solid rhythm section and a 1000-watt horn section. They also write some damn catchy songs, with “She’s Mine” and “Hey Mista That’s My Sista” featuring choruses that stick in your system like poison well after you’ve heard them.
Closing out the day was the aforementioned Stephens, who performed her original brand of dancehall to the cluster of fans hugging the stage. Of the five Skafest shows in the main harbour venue, this was by far the least attended, but the few hundred people there were in for a treat.
Dancehall is a very male-dominated genre, with artists such as Sean Paul, Shaggy, and Elephant Man finding North American crossover success, but Stephens performs with a distinctive woman’s touch— pardon the cliché. Stephen sings of sex, love, relationships, and wealth in her songs, but she also touches on social and political issues in her lyrics, her public criticism of homophobia in the dancehall genre being a prime example.
On top of treating the crowd to gems from her catalogue such as the hits “Yuh Nuh Ready Fi Dis Yet” (which has a Canadian slant; it was sampled by Ontario-reggae-stars Bedouin Soundclash) and “It’s a Pity,” she stole the show with her hilarious between-song monologues, the most memorable of which featured an in-depth discussion of the men of the audience and their *er-herm* “ding-dongs.”
With the backing of Natural Flavas, Stephens kicked serious ass all night long, her smooth vocal delivery sitting beautifully atop the syncopated dancehall grooves, and her toothy smile exuding stage presence and ever-present confidence. “It’s a Pity” is a relevant title, because it’s a pity more people weren’t in the audience to check out this Jamaican royalty on a Thursday eve.
Day Four: Mad Caddies, Los Furios, Bocce Avocado, The Sentiments. Ship Point.
I first heard California’s Mad Caddies when I was 16, seeing their music video for “Road Rash” on Much Music’s The Punk Show. I was absolutely blown away by how they put these catchy spastic horn-lines into heavy punk-rock songs. I jumped into their catalogue to realize not only did they play punk, but also a collection of other eclectic styles like reggae, ska, hardcore, swing jazz, and Dixieland. This is fitting, as on day four of The 14th Annual Victoria Ska Festival, the theme seemd to be eclecticism.
The show began with a set from Oregon’s The Sentiments, which despite being only three years old, features veteran musicians from various Pacific Northwest ska bands such as Skafest-alumni Easy Big Fella. They brought it old-school but with a new-school twist, playing traditional ska and rocksteady with splashes of soul and a bit of punk energy. They set the day up right, riding the ska sound simple and strong.
Holding down the local output for the day was Bocce Avocado. The band’s name may not be instantly recognizable, but any die-hard Victoria music fan would recognize the bodies on stage. The group features past and present members of Victoria roots-rock heavyweights, Jon and Roy and Current Swell, barely distinguishable in the pinks and turquoises of their tacky 1980s windbreakers and ball-caps.
The group played a wild mix of hip-hop, world-beat-rhythms, reggae, and dirty southern blues. As a big fan of their main projects, it was cool to see the familiar faces doing something so different and straight-up weird. But keep in mind, this is no novelty act. Their music is good! Bocce Avocado was one of the surprises of the festival.
Playing warm-up was Vancouver’s Los Furios. Veterans of the scene, Skafest just doesn’t feel like Skafest without them. With a mohawked sax player and a bouncing energy that stage could barely contain, the group brought the punk with their ska and reggae, acting as an ample appetizer for The Caddies. The highlight of their set for me was their gigantic horn-section which featured cameos from the talented Dave St. Jean and Matt Carter, known for their work with Dope Soda, The Kiltlifters, and seemingly every other Vancouver Island band of the last 10 years. They also interacted well with the crowd, controlling them to lay down low, jump up high, and bounce into each other in the mosh pit.
Their set was also one of perfect length. None of the openers overstayed their welcome with similar-sounding tracks or indulgent solos. They all left the audience wanting a little more while still be being overall satisfied, a testament to the strong festival planning and stingy stage management.
As the harbour started to fill nice and tight, Mad Caddies took the stage, and boy did they start out strong. Hell, the whole thing was strong. It was the best show ever in the history of live music.
Okay, maybe not, but man was it tough to contain the inner 16-year-old me.
They started out with two chill rocksteady songs before bursting into “Leavin’,” a vibrant Dixie-punk track which got the pit rolling and the beers flowing. The whole set followed a similar trend, balancing the sweet (“Souls for Sale,” “The Bell Tower”) with the sour (“Silence,” “Preppy Girl). They also brought out tracks from the entirety of their career, some over 15 years old, and others brand new such as their revamped version of “Distress.”
And in the name of eclecticism, the set took some turns in the direction of the peculiar. “It’s very fitting that we’re in a harbour,” quipped lead-singer Chuck Robertson before jumping into “Weird Beard,” a pirate-themed sea shanty. They also whipped out “Monkeys” a fan-favourite which I can only describe as a circus-worthy jazz-core romp which could shred the lips off of any trumpet player. The set then culminated in “Drinking for Eleven,” a mellow reggae jam which the whole crowd seemed to know every word to. And here’s where this review moves towards the personal and sentimental.
I popped backstage with my media pass to grab my bag and notepad during their encore break, and on my way out I caught the band huddled. I popped my head in and whispered “Road Rash.” Robertson, who I had met before the show, turned to me and laughed. I got back into the crowd as they popped onto stage, and they went right into “Road Rash.” I thought it could have been purely coincidence, as its one of their more well-known songs and definitely encore-worthy. However, they posted a picture of the set-list online a few days later, and “Road Rash” wasn’t on it. They played it, because one guy wanted it, because I wanted it. At this point, it’s become somewhat played-out to criticize the prima donna rock-star, but I have to say it was so refreshing to see such a significant band make a gesture like that.
Then again, if I requested an obscure deep-cut off an EP no one’s heard of, that story may have gone differently.
Nonetheless, the punk was brought with the ska on day four, and as someone who got into ska through the punk scene, I couldn’t have been happier. Something tells me the big-grinned crowd-surfing audience felt the same way too.
reviews by Michael LuisPhotos courtesy of E/A Photography
For Kyle Wells’ review of Yassin Bey (aka Mos Def) on night five, click here