I have a confession to make. I love ska, especially the really old ska that emerged in Jamaica during the late 1950s and 60s and evolved into rocksteady and reggae. So when Bucketlist sent me to cover the 2015 Montreal Ska Festival, I pulled out a suit, tied up my skinny tie (just kidding, I don’t really wear any of that stuff, but more on that later) and skanked down to Petit Campus to see what’s new in the exciting world of ska. In the process I made an unexpected discovery: Montreal has a truly incredible ska scene!
Held annually since 2009, The Montreal Ska Festival is the main activity of the Montreal Ska Society, a “non-profit organization dedicated to nurturing a love of music and culture, rooted…in the Jamaican/West-Indian style of ska, reggae & rocksteady,” according to their website. I was unable to attend the Friday event, but several people mentioned that the show, featuring Boston’s Westbound Train and guests Francbâtards, Adam’s Mind, and Les Separatwists, was a huge success!
I arrived early enough at Petit Campus on Saturday to hear a fantastic set of ska and reggae tunes mixed by local selector Skip Viitala, the Festival’s resident DJ and host of Ska Party Radio. The early arrival also gave me the opportunity to do some serious people watching. Ska fans are, of course, some of the best-dressed music fans around, and this concert was no exception. Rude boys represented by donning the required pork-pie hats, fitted suits, and Doc Martins.
Peterborough Ontario’s Dub Trinity hit the stage shortly after 10PM, warming up the crowd with a few upbeat, funk-inspired reggae jams. Their name is somewhat misleading though; I was hoping to hear more psychedelic, dub-heavy sounds before the harder and faster music to come.
The rest of the night included three high-energy Quebec bands, a true homage to Quebec ska culture. Eight-piece Francophone band Les Happycuriens, based in Repentigny, performed a tight and lively set loaded with plenty of quality horns and keyboards. Back-up vocalist and keyboard player Myriam Lamy kept a steady rhythm, while the large horn section channeled energy to their many supporters who came out en masse.
Next up, Kman & The 45s performed a harder, rock and roll style of ska that sounded like The Clash or The Ramones jamming with The Specials. The Ramones influence runs deep with these guys; they have a tribute to the American punk-rockers called “Ska-mones,” and they played a rowdy and raucous cover of “Blitzkrieg Bop” that had everyone dancing and singing along. But who doesn’t know the lyrics to that one?
The Kingpins’ headlining set was a reunion of sorts as the popular Montreal ska outfit haven’t performed together in ten years. Right from the first note of “Let’s Go to Work” the crowd knew they were in for a treat. The band looked like they were having a blast as they stormed through classic tunes like “The Ten Commandments of Ska.” Despite their long absence from the stage, the band and vocalist and saxophone player Lorraine Muller AKA “The Queen of Ska” had tremendous energy and stage presence, obviously soaking in every minute of the reunion. The Kingpins define the 90s ska-revival sound, and their set was a great if somewhat nostalgic trip back to a time when Canada was at the top of the ska world.
This was my first Montreal Ska Festival, and it won’t be the last!
Written by Rob Coles
*edited by Kate Erickson