Every time the annual Montreal Ska Festival comes around, I can’t stop thinking about Propagandhi’s song “Ska Sucks.” Don’t get me wrong, I like ska. But I bring up the punk anthem because it makes me wonder, how any sane person can withstand three straight days of this music without checking into a mental institution after it’s over? Well, as the festival’s organizers figured out, you have to tap into ska’s many variations, from the original 1960s Jamaican sound, to modern, punk-influenced “third wave” ska, and even a little roots reggae.
Opening night went down at Katacombes. It was an appropriate venue because it’s normally a punk and metal bar, and the music on this night was overwhelmingly an upfront and aggressive style of ska. Montreal band Downtown Fiasco kicked off the festival with a huge five-piece horn section that barely fit on the tiny Katacombes stage. The crowd, a dirtier, more punk audience than I’m used to at these events (I even spotted a couple with matching mohawks), dug the band’s youthful energy and fast edge.
The rest of the night was much of the same fast and loud music, but with an international flavour. Tijuana, Mexico’s Los Kung Fu Monkeys, using a backup drummer and guitarist, followed with a furious set of high-octane punk rock. Next up, Australian band the Resignators, Stomp Records artists from the bustling metropolis of Korweinguboora, unleashed a massive skanking sound from Down Under. The Resignators were joined on tour by their mascot Skippy, an inflatable boxing kangaroo that the crowd tossed around during their set. Skippy was a rowdy little ‘roo, knocking over a few drinks and almost starting a fight! The night ended with Ontario’s Ill Scarlet, their first Montreal gig since 2012.
Friday night, the venue switched to Petit Campus up on the Plateau. The music also shifted from the previous night’s punk-ska to an older, more authentic Jamaican sound. Ottawa eight-piece band The Sentries, with their first show in Montreal, got the night started in the classic 2 Tone style and gave a nod to legendary Jamaican pioneer Prince Buster, the “King of Ska,” who died recently.
Next up, L.A.’s Chris Murray, played an energetic solo acoustic set with catchy hits like “We do the Ska.” Murray would be an incredible busker, but his lo-fi sound could use a backup band for live concerts. Everyone enjoyed it though, and Murray had a warm stage presence and great crowd interaction. He even took requests from the audience. At one point, Murray broke a guitar string mid-song and had to make a quick change, but the crowd kept the beat by singing and clapping in rhythm. It was a fantastic moment when he came back to the song right on time after fixing the string.
Petit Campus filled up quickly for Danny Rebel & the KGB. The Montreal band had a big rocksteady and reggae sound, thanks to Rebel’s soulful vocals and a tight band. Catchy tunes like “I Wanna Go Home” are earning these guys a strong following among the Montreal reggae massive. Headliner Vernon Maytone closed the night with the classic ska sound of 1960s Kingston, Jamaica. This was the original ska style – straight from the source, performed by an old school don- I was waiting for. Maytone delivered a soulful set of classics like “Money Worries” and “Madness.”
It was an older crowd at Petit Campus, drawn by the more mellow roots and rocksteady rhythms of the night. The contrast from the aggressive, sweaty punk rock of the night before was exactly what I needed. But, as Maytone reminded us after each track, “We move on,” and on Saturday night the music moved on to the fast-paced and rowdy modern ska sound.
The festival went big for the final event with two floors of ska madness. Upstairs at Café Campus was by far the best sound and lights of the festival. No surprise that the improved audio-visual coincided with an appearance by festival headliners, Stomp artists, and Montreal punk-ska royalty The Planet Smashers. I’ve been lucky to see these guys in action a few times, and they really know how to electrify a crowd with their catchy and infectious sound.
The dance floor erupted during their set and, looking down from Café Campus’ balcony, I could see dozens of rude boys and girls, punks, and hippies circling the pit like caged lions. The matching mohawk-couple were back for their third night of the festival, and the mohawk guy even crowd surfed. During high energy songs like “Take it From the Top,” the pit was so aggressive I thought fights might break out. Luckily everyone seemed to get out ok. But you know I prefer the classic sounds, and the Planet Smashers brilliantly covered iconic U.K. band The Specials three times, with “Gangsters,” “Night Club,” and ending the night with “You’re Wondering Now.”
Also upstairs at Café Campus, local heavyweights The Beatdown played gritty and soulful “northern reggae” tunes from their album Walkin’ Proud. FoOlish, also from Montreal, started the night with an upbeat tempo, covering classics like Toots and the Maytals’ “54-46 Was My Number.” Regular Ska Festival DJ Skip Viitala, whose selections are always superb, dropped scorchers like “Simmer Down” and “Israelites.” The party continued downstairs at Petit Campus with The Fundamentals and The Duppies, and those that stayed late to close down the party must have enjoyed them.
Ska is such a niche market that it’s remarkable the Montreal Ska Festival is still doing its thing after eight years. Massive respect to festival founder and president of the Montreal Ska Society Valerie Desnoyers, and everyone involved in keeping this sound alive. There’s a line in “Ska Sucks” claiming, “The bands are only in it for the bucks,” but I don’t think that’s the case. The people involved in Montreal’s Ska Festival are clearly in it for the love of the music.
Written by Rob Coles
Photography by Danny Donovan
*edited by Kate Erickson