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Possibly the biggest character builder for the group came last summer when KS was picked out of 4,000 entries to perform during the New Music Seminar in New York City. The band was so green to the ways of the industry, it arrived at this schmooze fest without so much as a demo tape or band bio in its possession. But the men did have a minivan stocked with everything else they needed to survive for a week, particularly the one ingredient any self-respecting ska outfit should never be without.
"Yeah, we did some stupid driving," snickers Shadrach. "Big, giant spliffs all the way."
"For about a third of the trip, all six people were asleep," saxman Jason "Big D. Gree" Powell cryptically deadpans. Besides collectively catching forty winks over 5,000 miles, the band faced the usual perils one associates with New York City. "Our ex-sax player almost killed a junkie that tried to steal something from us," Shadrach recounts.
The band did come away from the panel discussions armed with new know-how and a marketing strategy: to create a buzz regionally and sell a lot of CDs on an indie label. That it's been able to succeed on both counts this quickly has a lot to do with the band's close association with Steve Naughton of Medical Productions. Since October of last year, Naughton has been bringing some incredible ska shows to the Valley. Kongo Shock has found itself opening up for the cream of the current crop, from Skankin' Pickle and Hepcats to Sublime and Blue Meanies.
And these shows are by no means sparsely attended. "Blue Meanies are huge in Chicago--they do about 1,500 people," Naughton says. "Out here they've never played, they're not on the radio, never had any press. But all you have to do is make a flier that says 'ska' on it, and 200 people show up.
"Ska to me is like a Nineties version of the big-band stuff," he continues. "The minute the horns kick in, everyone goes nuts, just like in the swing movies. Bands like Skankin' Pickle and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones kind of introduced these kids to ska with ska punk. Now I'm finding all the kids coming to the shows want to dig deeper. I like bands like Kongo Shock because they're traditional. They write ska songs, they're not trying to be punk."
Meanwhile, in direct contrast to these successful ska shows, some recent touring grunge bands have had trouble drawing in small clubs. Young audiences, besides demonstrating a desire to dance, crave the kind of showmanship lacking in grunge. They want to see energy or, at the very least, some inertia onstage that doesn't involve the band rocking its collective hair back and forth.
"You don't see any crappy ska bands because in order to get a group of eight guys working together and three horn players, you've got to be very motivated and very energetic," offers Naughton.
One local voice of authority who's been closely monitoring this steady swell of interest in ska is Jonathan L., host of the long-running radio show Virgin Vinyl and program director for KUKQ, the only local station currently programming any ska music. Mr. L. doesn't see this as mere revivalism or an excuse to wear porkpie hats again. "I really think ska's gonna be bigger than what it is right now," he predicts. "Of the current crop of talent, I get the feeling that these ska bands are starting to get a lot cleverer, both musically and presentation-wise, because you have to add different things. If it was just horns and that same beat with very little interest to the lyrics, it would be pretty boring. You can't have, in 1995 and beyond, a bunch of bands trying to sound like the Specials.
"Granted, the Toasters are more traditional, along the lines of the Specials," he says. "But you have Dave's Big Deluxe out of Tucson, injecting a south-of-the-border feel, and the more contemporary punk leanings like Skankin' Pickle. I'm really high on a band called Mustard Plug. They're more of what I call a 'juvey' ska band; there's some juvenile lyrics in there like 'Schoolboy With a Boner.' And I like Kongo Shock because they're unusually different, too. They vary the beat a little more than most."
When asked what Kongo Shock's identifying traits are, Bob Noxious pins them to the band's sprawling song structures. "A song for us is, like, ten parts. Here's the stupid part, here's the rockin' part, here's the jazz part." Whether any part of ska can skank its way into the mainstream still remains to be seen. So far, only the Mighty Mighty Bosstones are signed to a major label. "While ska records sell okay," says Steve Naughton, "it's nothing compared to the live shows. Locally, the only record store with a viable ska section is Eastside Records."
Ironically enough, the one thing that could keep ska out of mass acceptance is its most vocal and staunchest supporters--the skinheads, whose often violent behavior flies in the face of ska's largely fun-loving credo.
"I have a bunch of skinhead fans that believe the music we play is for them and they're just letting everybody else listen to it," says Shadrach, somewhat perplexed that a black man can be treated well by all these warring factions. "One group of skinheads don't like another group. The two tones don't like them. The scooter boys don't like anybody because they don't have suits on. Why are you bringing that attitude when you know damn well everybody's gonna be there?"