What It Is To Be Free
A sort of rambling review of the Hepcat show at the Paradise in Boston on 2/21/98.
You all know that "second" that Jesse sang about so many years ago. "Just a second when we're leaving all that shit behind. Just a second but it's leaving just this much in mind." That's how I judge a show these days. Hell, that's why I even go to shows at all these days. I know a show is worth the price of admission if I experience that "second". You can't miss it when it comes. I have to admit... the life of a computer programmer isn't all that exciting. It seems that my demented brain can find time to work on programming problems even in the midst of a great band like the Slackers. It isn't necessarily happening right up front, but it's there somewhere running in a background process. I know it's sick, but it's something that I have to live with. It's too late for me to do anything about that now. In any case, that "second" came to me last night with no mercy. It hit me about three seconds into Hepcat's "Ska Train". That's not bad considering we're pretty much just talking about a warm up song. Now, here's the reason why I want everyone who reads this to go see Hepcat (I know all you west coast guys already know about this, so I hope you can back me up on this). That "second" did not end until after the band stopped playing. The second time. In fact, it didn't even really end then. I think it ended sometime after I paid respect to Deston Berry (keyboardist/vocalist) when he came back on stage to break down his equipment, by shaking his hand and asking him to come back to Boston soon. I think it finally ended just about when I ran into the backed up combined souvenir/coat check line and realized I wasn't going to get a chance to pick up that Hepcat T-shirt that I had my eye on.
But let me start by backing up a bit to where this story really begins. It's been maybe three years since I found myself standing outside of the sold out Skatalites/Hepcat show at Slim's in San Francisco. I had been eagerly awaiting my first chance to see the Skatalites perform in California and to check out the folks in Hepcat since I picked up their (now classic) "Out Of Nowhere" CD a couple of months before. So there I was listening to the sweet Hepcat sounds coming through the door out onto 11th St. wondering why the hell I wasn't bright enough to pick up a ticket any time during the month or so that I had been looking forward to the show. It didn't take me more than a few seconds of hearing the music coming through the door to know that I was missing something big.
So, three years later, when I heard that Hepcat had answered my prayers and decided to come to my newly found home town of Boston, I got my tickets early. Now here it is - 5:00AM the morning after the show, and I'm writing this review for you. It would be cool for me to say that the night was filled with all-night partying up till now, but that would be far from accurate.
The Hepcat show at the Paradise was a very early show. In fact, I got home in time to catch the Saturday Night Live Chris Farley tribute. (Kids in the 60's had martyrs like JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm X. We've got Chris Farley. But hey, that's better than Sonny Bono or Michael Kennedy. I mean, they could have at least been snowboarding, right?) I was happily fast asleep by 1:00AM, composing this write-up in my dreams, when I suddenly awoke at 5:00 with the realization that I had better get it down on paper before the memory starts to fade. So, in the fine tradition of the early morning Bhatt-zine review, here we are.
The schedule was like this - doors at 7:00PM, music starts at 7:45, Hepcat goes on at 9:30. Being used to seeing shows at the Middle East, where the headliner usually goes on after 11:00, I at first thought that there was something wrong with the early schedule. The 9:30 starting time turned out to be a blessing, as I expended every bit of energy that I had available, and when the show got out at 11:00PM I was exhausted and more than satisfied with the evening's offerings. The pre-show game got started at Elbert's place. I swung by around 5:30 to drop off the tickets. On the way out of my place I decided to grab my copy of "Right On Time", to help get the evening off on the right foot. I had a feeling that nothing would get Elbert psyched like a few minutes of the latest Hepcat, and of course it did not fail. This is an outstanding CD, and I really believe it to be their best. Hell, the first cut alone makes it worth the money - it's a dub of one of the Hepcat member's father - a righteous pro-Hepcat answering machine message over some fine old style reggae rhythms. If you ever wondered where the term/title "Scientific" came from, here's your chance to find out. The recording of "Can't Wait" has better mixing and sweeter harmonies than the one on "Give 'em the Boot" - (another comp on which Hepcat represents with the finest track). The CD is filled with great original traditional ska, rock steady and reggae tunes. There's a superb slowed-down, reggae version of "The Secret" which shouldn't be missed. Check out the updated backing vocals on this track and you will begin to understand why I like this CD so much. For all of you Hepcat fans that haven't bothered to put out the cash to pick up this CD... Do not hesitate! Go to the store pick it up today.
We were in store for a great lineup - Gadjits/Slackers/Hepcat. Another "Give 'Em the Boot" tour, and surely the best one yet. I'm not going to go into the opening bands. This is getting too long already. Let's just say on a normal night I would be psyched to see either of these bands, especially the Slackers, who have a nice traditional sound and really know how to do the ska/rock-steady thing. But I have to confess that there was really only one reason why I was at the show. All through the first two bands I had one thing on my mind - the upcoming Hepcat performance. Some might say I was "obsessing" ("Some" being my girlfriend Kelly, who I think was just about ready to punch me since I had been bugging her all week about the show). During the Slackers I was pretty much busy planning strategies for getting to the front of the stage in time for Hepcat. When the Slackers played a tune which had a "Train to Skaville"-like bass line, I could only think of one thing... Hepcat!
The long awaited time finally came and we found a good spot up front and over to the side of the stage by the horns. A few moments before Hepcat took the stage, I had a moment of doubt. I mean, my expectations were extremely high. Could these guys live up to my hopes? I asked Elbert about this and he reassured me that there was no need to doubt. Looking back I feel foolish for my momentary betrayal. But unlike Judas, I must have been forgiven, because instead of going to hell I was rewarded with a show that far exceeded my expectations.
There are two things that you need to know about Hepcat to appreciate why they are so great. First, without doubt Hepcat understands and expresses the spirit, soul and sound of the traditional Jamaican ska and rock steady music more than any "ska" band that wasn't actually around when the music was first performed in the 1960's. Second, they do this with amazing amount of creativity and originality for a kind of music that has been around for so long. I need to explain this a bit more so you all understand what I mean.
Since the 60's ska has been done in every way imaginable. For better or worse, I think that the resurgence of interest in ska music in the late 90's can qualify as the "4th wave" of ska. Ever since the Two-Tone days, bands have been coming up with new ways to express the spirit of ska. From the Specials to Op Ivy, I would say almost every hybrid - ska-punk, ska-core, ska-metal, ska-la, ska-funk, ska-whatever has been explored. Most of these bands respect the roots of ska, and pretty much any band will throw a traditional ska song into the mix, just to keep the rude boys happy. Occasionally you find bands like Dion Knibbs and the Agitators and Jump with Joey, that truly honor the roots and dedicate their musical careers to playing and perfecting the traditional sound. Usually this means playing the old gems - songs written by the likes of Don Drummond, Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, Baba Brooks, Freddie Hibbert, Desmond Dekker, Bob Marley, etc... These bands are performing a great service to the ska kids of today by keeping the sound alive. So, just maybe some kid who starts listening to ska because the Bosstones made it popular will get a chance to see a band like the Pressure Cookers and learn something about the tradition of the music that everyone likes to skank to.
Here's the important point. Hepcat isn't just keeping the roots of ska alive. They are adding to the foundation of traditional ska music by making more new traditional ska music in the original vein than any band since the 60's. Hepcat may be writing songs in the 90's, but their original music is some of the only post-60's ska that could truly be placed side by side with the original music. (I've been going on about traditional ska music, but I think you could say the same of Hepcat with respect to rock steady and reggae music too.) Hepcat is one of the few bands in the last couple of decades that combine a song-writing, instrumental, and vocal talent that rivals that of the original masters. This all became clear to me as Hepcat opened the show with a tribute to the roots, "Ska Train".
One of the benefits of not drinking during the show is that I have a perfect memory of every song that Hepcat performed, in the correct order. (Also, I swiped the play list from the stage so that I could use it for my write-up. Ajay, I'll send you a copy so that you can put it in Institutionalized if you want.) Here we go...
And for the encore:
It was a perfect mix of the classics off their first album, with some of the greats from their two newer albums as well as some old traditional tunes that we all know and love. Everything about their performance was strong. Much fun watching the two singers dancing, which brought more than one roar of approval from the appreciative crowd. There was plenty of room up front for dancing (sorry to anyone behind me if I bumped into you too much). It was a great crowd - the best crowd I've seen since coming to Boston - and the show went off without incident. For me, it was a perfect evening that I was glad to be able to share with old friends and new.
I'm left with this thought: It's probably going to be a year or so before Hepcat comes back this way. What hope is there for me to re-live that "second"? Is there any chance that I'm going to reach that level of intensity at any other show this year? Maybe not. At times like these it's best to look to lessons from those who are wiser. And that's why I know this - "To resist despair, that second makes you see... To resist despair in this world is, what it is..." Well, I don't feel that I have to spell it out for you. It doesn't matter anyway. The Skatalites are coming to the Middle East on 4/2/98.
|Sudden Death Publications (c) 2003|