But there is also a lot of ska. And I'm not talking about the upbeat skank-tastic third-wave ska from the likes of Mustard Plug or Reel Big Fish, either, although that's fun, too. But in this case, I'm talking about the First Wave and 2 Tone ska, the bands that loaded the rosters of Trojan Records, a sound that started in Jamaica and moved to England, providing a soundtrack for skinheads and rude boys alike.
I don't know if it's the landscape of the canals, canal houses and bicycles that make up my day-to-day in the 'Dam, or how much fun it is to see my year-old daughter bop around to rocksteady beats in our 1860's apartment (legalities of other things associated with Amsterdam and Jamaica actually don't factor into this), but somehow I always equate Amsterdam with these Jamaican/English sounds, and various Trojan Records Box Sets have served as the background to life in Amsterdam almost from the moment we arrived.
A recent trip to the States added to the collection of ska with another box set, this one coming from the unlikely home of Chicago, a city known more for its creation of blues and soul than ska. But Chicago is where the sensational band Deal's Gone Band calls home, and it's their box set Welcome To The Vaults that's been on heavy rotation lately.
An outfit that mixes ska and rocksteady with skinhead reggae and the soul that Chicago is better known for, Deal's Gone Bad was one of the more memorable acts of the 2010 Vans Warped Tour for the time they were there. Welcome To The Vaults looks back at their earlier days with three albums that span from 1998-2002.
This is a time period that showcases an earlier lineup of the band with Mike Park on vocals (but not that Mike Park), but it's an essential period for the band, when they established a sound, a style, and determined exactly when the deal went bad.
Large and In Charge
The box begins with 1998's Large and In Charge, the band's debut with Jump Up! Records, a Chicago label that specializes in ska and rocksteady music. Large and In Charge opens up with "The Elephants," a track which opens with jungle sounds and a driving drum beat that sounds for two seconds like it will be an exotic version of Dead Kennedys' "Holiday in Cambodia" before turning into something more akin to jazzier riff on the New York Dolls' "Stranded In The Jungle."
From there, the band sets the tone and attitude that will propel them through years and through lineup changes. As the title suggests Large and In Charge is loaded with swagger, but it's a relaxed swagger. It's an album heavily loaded with songs about getting heavily loaded, as the music carries the lyrics from dive bar to dive bar, with the occasional stop for "Mini-Thins" to keep the party going.
With "Pirates," Deal's Gone Bad grabs hold of the coolness of the theme years before Depp realized its moneymaking potential, and the band's cover of the Pogues' "Dirty Old Town" finds that Chicago can be just as dirty and lovely as the song's original locale.
The turn of the century found the band going Overboard, their 2000 release and second with Jump Up! Records. With 11 songs clocking in at under 40 minutes, the band is finding an increased energy and a more distinctive sound, as their varied influences of soul, R&B, reggae, rocksteady and ska come more cohesively together.
With the addition of keyboardist Julio Herrera, the organ sound is given much more free reign, adding another integral element of the Jamaican sound. Whereas Large and In Charge was more horn-driven, Overboard is more key-focused, maintaining the same idea of the band's influences, while looking at it from a different angle. As the band goes Overboard, they escape the dive bars as well, and explore the world beyond the barroom.
The drunken pirate theme reappears here on "Shiver Me Timber," a ribald tune that offers the inclusion of Matt Hensley on accordion, a character who would go on to bigger fame with another bunch of drunken pirates when he enlisted with the Flogging Molly crew.
Guide To Boat Drinks and Cruise Cocktails
Welcome To The Vaults wraps up with the band's third full-length on Jump Up! Records, 2002's Guide To Boat Drinks and Cruise Cocktails. Again with lineup changes, the band's sound has taken a mellow turn as they pursue more reggae-influenced sounds. That by no means suggests a loss of energy though, it's instead a more relaxed energy, with a sound that's just as exciting as ever, even if it's less driving.
Key on Guide To Boat Drinks and Cruise Cocktails are a pair of covers - The Skatalites' "Killer Diller," and even better is their cover of Judge Dread's "Dread Rock." A colorful character in his own right, Dread was the first white artist to have a reggae hit in Jamaica, and is known for, among other things, his stint as a professional wrestler, as a debt collector for Trojan Records, and for having more songs banned by the BBC than any other artists due to his frequent use of sexual innuendo.
Welcome To The Vaults closes with a band that was still in transition, with a lineup that would continue to change. Today only two original members remain and the exquisitely soulful Todd Hembrook has taken vocal duties from Mike Park. But what hasn't changed is the band's energy, or the fact that this Chicago outfit is keeping rocksteady and traditional ska alive. It was an amazing era for music that was essential to the early days of the punk scene, and it's great that bands still carry the torch. Whether it's in Chicago, Amsterdam, London or Jamaica, the music supplies a sound and an energy that everyone can relate to.