With so many event options to celebrate Canada Day, it was still a clear choice for ska aficionados to head over to the Biltmore Cabaret. One of New York City’s finest ska exports, the Slackers, helped finish off the festivities in Vancouver by doing a pre-Victoria Ska Fest show which delighted their throng of loyal followers.
For those who are unfamiliar with this talented sextet, the Slackers have been around since the early 90s and helped keep the ska scene very much alive and kicking. Formed in Manhattan, Vic Ruggiero led the band to a prolific career with 15 albums under their belts. It’s no surprise that Ruggiero and the rest of the boys attracted quite a crowd last Wednesday.
The night started when local party starters the Ballantynes warmed up the stage with their catchy garage-gospel tunes. The band, with the commanding presence of vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Jarrod O’Dell, has the ability to make you shake it with abandon. It’s easy to get lost in all their tambourine-rattling goodness topped with the soulful vocal stylings of O’Dell, as well as Vanessa Dandurand and Jennifer Wilks. It was apparent that most of the band’s members are not one-dimensional when it comes to their musical talent as they each did a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Starting the night with soul music was a good idea, and the Ballantynes served it up quite well.
It was a sweltering night, and the heat could already be felt on the dance floor. But when the Slackers finally came onstage, the Biltmore got even hotter. It was difficult to not dance – or, in ska terms, “skank” – to the dynamic ensemble’s mix of smooth reggae and upbeat ska, with some rocksteady thrown in. Since guitarist Jay Nugent was missing in action, the Slackers brought in the Aggrolites‘ Jesse Wagner to fill in his shoes. Wagner also took the mic for their gorgeous rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Just a Gigolo”, proving that he is definitely up to par with the rest of the band.
Ruggiero, with his amusing New York accent, gave a proper introduction to every band member. With a moment for each player to shine in the spotlight, it felt like you actually got to know them. “Disco” Dave Hillyard showed how easy it is for him to handle the sexy saxophone; same with Glen Pine and his trombone. The band’s great audience interaction is just an added bonus – watching them onstage, it’s easy to see why the Slackers are still going strong after two decades.
After ending their hour-long set, the crowd pleaded for an encore, and they succeeded. The Slackers came back onstage and made sure that their fans went home happy. The band ended with a lot of sweat and echoes of ska music in our ears. If you haven’t had a chance to see these brilliant music-makers rip it up, try to catch them next time they’re in town. If you don’t think you like ska, the Slackers may change your mind.