Canada’s biggest city has severely been lacking the past few years when it comes to diverse music festivals. Since both Warped Tour and Riot Fest have pulled out of Toronto (the bastards! Canadians have feelings too), there’s certainly been a pressing need for a festival that punk rock and ska lovers can call home. It may be in its debut year, but the Toronto Ska Fest hopes to do just that. Although the independently run festival’s lineup consists of mostly local bands, it’s something that fans of the genre can look forward to without having to travel out of the province to see the music they love, play in one place. Well, three.
The first of three nights was held at The Garrison, a lovely venue with a relatively big stage that I always thought would be perfect for small to medium sized shows like this. Kicking off the entire festival was Lazy Slang, a relatively straightforward reggae/dub group. Despite my initial fears that the starting crowd of about ten people would be consistent throughout the night, the band played a solid set. Sublime is an apparent influence in their music with a good chunk of Lazy Slang’s songs comprising of two chords reggae guitar strumming, some grooving bass, and feel-good leads to keep the melodic aspect interesting. Both guitarists, as well as the lone saxophonist, used a large amount of echo and delay on their instruments, successfully providing that atmospheric effect that I love so much about dub music. Their sax player, unfortunately, didn’t move, or even play much. There were certainly moments where he could have stepped in to play some lead, maybe even take a solo or two from the lead guitarist instead of standing around, barely moving for songs at a time.
The Skadoos were up next and a decent amount of people were at the venue at this point. The eight-piece band were playing their first show in a while and it certainly showed. Although their music and large horn section were a delight, it took them a while to come together as a collective. No members were significantly off, but the problem with an eight-piece band is that everyone needs to be spot on or else it starts to sound a little muddy. Aside from that problem, they played one of my favourite sets of the night with the male and female lead singers providing a fresh dynamic. They played a few covers between their original songs, namely Save Ferris’ “Come On Eileen” (which, I suppose makes it a cover of a cover) and “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book movie. The energetic 1920s swing revival set certainly thrilled the crowd of fifty-or-so people, and started to shape up the rest of the night.
Up next was Lou-Dog & The Badrash. They were probably my favourite band, if only because I, like everyone else, have a huge soft spot for Sublime. The tribute band certainly did the California reggae-rockers justice with a setlist appealing to diehard fans and casuals alike. Songs like “What Happened,” “5446 That’s My Number/Ball And Chain,” and, of course, “What I Got” helped give a diversity to the covers. The lead singer used two microphones, one regular, and one with a heavy delay to create a cool echo effect heard on a lot of Sublime’s discography. He had a timbre that fit Bradley Nowell’s style pretty well, too. On top of the standard three members, they also had a turntablist/hype man and a sax player, which added a lot to the overall sound. Although the DJ’s record scratching was a cool addition to this music, his lines rapped for emphasis overtop of the singer’s vocal melodies definitely weren’t needed, but his confidence and engagement with the crowd certainly makes him a valuable asset to the group.
The Harmonauts took the stage next, and they were certainly unique. They were pretty anti-climactic, in all honesty. They walked onstage to some pretentious epic movie score, only for me to discover that the three-piece didn’t have a singer, horn players, or even a guitarist. The band was one of the most active on stage that night, and had some talented members, though. I was impressed by the fast and sharp drumming. The Harmonauts relied heavily on their keyboard player to carry their somewhat prog-influenced ska sound, but holy hell if it wasn’t repetitive. It was easy music to dance to, and the half-drunk crowd was enjoying themselves, but a lot of their songs sounded alike. The tracks kept a similar tempo, beat, and keyboard organ effect. When the keyboardist did try to sing, his voice was okay at best, and offered a pretty forgettable performance. Still, they were a thrill to watch.
Rounding out the first day of Toronto ska fest was Adam’s Mind. A band that I actually reviewed a couple months ago when they opened up for Big D and the Kids Table. There’s nothing new that I can say about them, in all honesty. They’re a pretty consistent live act. I recognized a few of their songs, and they have some good ones that you can skank to. The few people left in the venue at 1:00am were having a blast, and certainly feeling the effects of a beautifully harmonizing three-man horn section.
All in all, it was a good night that was filled with grooving, if repetitive rhythms. It’s not a bad way to kick off a DIY festival. It’s worth mentioning that Adam’s Mind’s bassist, Daniel May, is to thank for putting the whole festival together. I discovered some pretty great Toronto bands, and will hopefully find a lot more in the remaining two days of Toronto Ska Fest
Written by Mathieu Perrier
*edited by Danielle Kenedy