Dateline: August 21, 2018 — Tuesday night I found myself once again ignoring my social awkwardness issues and venturing out solo to the Vogue, Indianapolis’ number one nightclub for hosting bands that were in heavy rotation on my CD player throughout the ’90s. My wife Anne and I share a lot of important commonalities, but one of our smaller Venn diagrams is “musical preferences”. Nearly everyone I know with similar tastes lives in other states. Therefore I can either attend concerts alone, attend only when Anne wants to (not impossible but rare), make new friends to attend concerts with, or never experience live music again. Once every 1-2 years, I let option A win.
This year’s reason for me to leave the house and touch a dance floor: the Mighty Mighty Bosstones! If you don’t know the name offhand, your best chance of hearing them was the 1997 single “The Impression That I Get“, which achieved modest airplay beyond the usual alt-rock channels. They were among the first and few ska bands I listened to back in the day, still have four of their first five albums, but had lost track of them and countless other bands over the past 10-15 years. It was great to get reacquainted and find out they’re still recording and touring.
Quick digression: should I stop and explain “ska” or assume I can move on? Yes? Well, just in case: you’ve heard a smattering of ska if you’re familiar with England’s own Madness (the “Our House” guys) or No Doubt (remember when Gwen Stefani was in a band?), or if you’re still scarred by that scene in Back to the Beach when Annette Funicello sang with Fishbone, for which they cranked their guitars way, way down. Basically, rock with horns, a distinctive “walking bass line” rhythm, optional loud guitars, and energetic stage performances in outdated suits. I was first exposed to the world of ska by a comic book back in the mid-’80s (Evan Dorkin’s Pirate Corp$) and, while it didn’t become my favorite thing ever, it gave me something new to check out. Ska has often been a welcome change of pace from ordinary average rock…but I’d never attended an actual ska show until this very night.
But first, the opening act, who took the stage promptly at 8 p.m. — a sextet from West Lafayette calling themselves Dissonance and Dissent. They plaster the phrase “political ska-punk” on every square inch around them, from their official website to their merchandise to the first thing out of their mouths as they launched into their 45-minute set. Stridently political bands are rare ’round these parts and next to nonexistent on pop radio, so perhaps using the word “political” as often as possible is their version of yelling “WARNING: POLITICAL POST” like that aunt you blocked on Facebook.
(NOTE FOR NEW READERS: I’m not a professional photographer and don’t pretend to be one. What’s posted here are the least worst takes from my Galaxy S9, nearly all of which were snapped in a hurry — partly so I could get back to to enjoying the show ASAP, and partly so I wouldn’t be too much of a nuisance to those standing behind me.)
In their case “political” translates into screeds about non-conformity, unnecessary wars, human disposability, and a firm stance against the concept of oppression in general. There was a whole speech about that last one. Not that I’m pro-oppression, but my lyrical diet in my late-teen and college years included the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Dead Kennedys, Ministry, and other outspoken performers either cut from the same cloth or who, in fact, performed the original cloth-cutting. With song titles such as “Recruit”, “Soldier”, “A Song for the People”, and “One Nation” ringing a familiar old bell, it wasn’t hard to anticipate where they were coming from. That went double for “Oppression Obsession”, which…well, there you go.
But they’re young, and they’re still honing their craft and their lyrical voice, willing to keep forging ahead on a trail that most acts have abandoned because it doesn’t lure in the Kids These Days to smash those Like and Subscribe buttons on YouTube. I respect that passion to do something that feels more meaningful and less like drivel. And I love that they brought a saxophone and trumpet. Hence the “ska” in “ska-core”. I have zero complaints about the instrumental ferocity on display — sometimes abrasive, sometimes ebullient, sometimes both at once, and rarely standing still. They rocked and they got down with their bad selves. I’m pretty sure they left my ears ringing well before the headliners came out.
Their first album will be out this fall, which meant no CDs for sale at the show, though they had a card table stocked with visual merch for getting the word out between now and then. I talked to one guy in the audience who’d seen them perform elsewhere and, I think, was more excited about hearing them again than about the next act. Fans at the front of the dance floor got into the groove heavily enough that a small mosh pit broke out during the closing number “Watch Out”. I legitimately hadn’t seen one of those in 25 years, which tells you a bit about my concert-going history. Slamming into other humans is not my tempo, but thankfully the pandemonium fenced itself in about three bodies short of my position.
I spent the intermission texting back ‘n’ forth with Anne, which gave me something to do besides stand there and stare at walls while everyone else around me chatted and hung out and laughed and joked and socialized and did normal things done by normal people in nightclubs, as I understand them. Our exchange left off around 9:10, so I’m guessing it was around 9:15 when the Bosstones, led by singer Dicky Barrett, stormed the house and shook the walls for 90+ minutes straight.
The complete setlist, for those curious and for me to refer back to when my memory fails in the future:
- Green Bay, Wisconsin
- Pictures To Prove It
- The Rascal King
- Graffiti Worth Reading
- Someday I Suppose
- Everybody’s Better
- You Left Right?
- The Constant
- Simmer Down (a cover – original by the Wailers)
- Sunday Afternoons on Wisdom Ave.
- Royal Oil
- Nah, Nah, Nah, Nah, Nah
- Howwhywuz, Howwhyam
- Hell of a Hat
- Let’s Face It
- They Will Need Music
- Bad News and Bad Breaks
- Wonderful Day for the Race
- Don’t Worry Desmond Dekker
- I Can See Clearly Now (another cover — you probably know the original)
- The Impression That I Get
Of course there was an encore, four songs in all:
- Where’d You Go?
- Dr. D
- A Pretty Sad Excuse
- You Gotta Go!
Shameful confession, though: I lost track of them about three albums ago. They’re not the only band I’ve had this happened to, because I have no reliable source for new-non-popular-music news. I didn’t know the newer songs, but got into the rhythm anyway, had a blast, and tried to remember snippets of lyrics so I could look them up later. Among the standouts I have to familiarize myself with now was the positivist “Wonderful Day for the Race”, which ended with all nine Bosstones taking a knee.
And oh, that glorious horn section in general. The more I find myself drifting to jazz channels on the radio as my mind marches toward elderlydom, the more they stick out to me whenever I encounter them out in the wild.
Barrett, age 54, didn’t exactly move around a lot, but he seemed almost ready to explode with excitement anyway, channeling all available energy into his trademark gravelly bellow and, halfway through their set, finding the strength to hurl his red blazer and necktie backstage when temperatures rose into subtropical figures as the Vogue’s air conditioning strained to keep up with the hundreds of us warm bodies crammed inside. Barrett didn’t need to run or jump around — the entire front half of the dance floor did that for him, melding into an even larger mosh pit on and off through most of their set. Before long there was also crowd-surfing, which didn’t bother the band as long as no one got truly damaged. Special thanks went out to the Vogue staff for helping control the human flesh tide as needed.
I stayed far back in the safety-minded section of the floor, not far from a young lady whose date kept leaving her behind for several songs at a time to go leaping into the ska pit. At one point another young lady behind me had to gently negotiate relocating me to a floor space a few feet to my right so I wouldn’t keep blocking or backing into her and her two companions. Usually I’m more cognizant of the space my large body fills and try to keep myself physically withdrawn to a minimum, but I had apparently enjoyed myself too much and gotten carried away. I appreciated her delicate handling of a clumsy situation, and she understood that I could barely hear her and so resorted to exaggerated gestures, which somehow worked. I ended up even more self-conscious the rest of the night than I’d already been, but I got where she was coming from and was therefore less bitter than usual about being treated as an inanimate inconvenience.
Besides, how could I stay mad in the middle of music like this? Good times, great tunes. At the end of the night I walked out with another memorable live-music experience to my credit, a copy of the newest Bosstones CD While We’re At It, and the stench of two different beers that other patrons had splashed on me because apparently people who love alcohol aren’t very good about keeping track of it while they’re jamming and/or dancing. Also, there was the tinnitus, which finally faded away by late Wednesday afternoon, unlike the memories, which should carry me pretty high till my next concert, whatever year that’ll be.