Nonstop touring, superb musicianship, and an energetic stage show have built up the reputation of the Slackers, but their live albums have never captured the intensity the East Coast ska outfit will likely bring to Slim’s in San Francisco this Saturday. That all changes with Peculiar, the six-piece’s latest effort, which solves the problem by combining the best aspects of a live gig with some studio polish.
“The bass, drums, and guitar were recorded live at a gig at Ernesto’s in Sittard, Holland,” says David Hillyard, the Slackers’ saxophonist. “It’s a small club, and the audience is so close to you that you have to play hard. It was near the end of our European tour, so we were really tight. We stripped off the crowd noise and overdubbed the vocals and horns, although there were some takes good enough to make it onto the record intact.”
One of those tunes is “In Walked Capo,” an instrumental in the style of the Upsetters, one of Jamaica’s original ska powerhouses fronted by Lee “Scratch” Perry. Referring to Upsetters’ organ player Glen “Capo” Adams, “In Walked Capo” swings like mad, playing around the beat and pushing and pulling the music with a loose precision that gives the music an effortless, buoyant feel.
Elsewhere, the Slackers confound expectations by dropping a bit of old-school American country music into the mix. “I’d Rather Die Happy” balances the vocals of organ player Vic Ruggiero with Jayson Nugent’s sparse acoustic guitar. “Rider” conjures up images of dreadlocked cowboys on the ganja trail. “There is a Jamaica/country connection,” Hillyard says. “Toots and the Maytals did ‘Country Road,’ and there’s country picking on older reggae songs. We’ve recorded a ska version of Johnny Cash’s ‘Wanted Man’ [originally by Bob Dylan] that we haven’t released — it gets a great reaction when we do it live.”
There’s also a New Orleans connection. “A lot of the early ska rhythms were adapted from the R&B hits that got picked up on Jamaican radio in the ’60s,” he continues. “You can hear that kind of rolling New Orleans thing in the way Ara Babajian plays drums on ‘Keep It Simple’ and ‘International War Criminal. ‘”
San Franciscans like their music a bit politically tinged, and the Slackers intend to deliver this week. Their post-9/11 album, Close My Eyes, was outspokenly political at a time when many artists cowered in the heat of the country’s jingoistic fervor. Peculiar continues to speak to the national and international malaise. “Ska’s always had a political edge,” Hillyard says. “Ska was connected with Jamaican independence, and early ska hits included political statements. The 2-Tone movement, Britain’s first ska revival, included the Specials, who were political. In America it didn’t take for some reason, but we’ve always written about personal experience and politics come into that. We admire Bob Marley and Dylan, writers who deal with the times without sounding preachy. Our songs are danceable, but they have a message too.”
Tracks like “International War Criminal” and “Propaganda” retain the band’s high-octane energy while making a few serious points about the current world situation and America’s part in it. “Right now, the mood of the country is defeatist,” Hillyard says. “We’re in a mess and no one sees a way out, regardless of political affiliation. There are things that need to be addressed, but you don’t want a political rally when you go to a show. We deliver a message, but we’re still rowdy and try to uplift the crowd.”