I became a fan of ska music in a distant foreign land where such music is unheard and unheard of: the mountains of western North Carolina. Madness was my entry point, which led to the English Beat, the Specials and the rest of the 2 Tone scene, and eventually brought me to ska’s Jamaican roots in the Skatalites and Prince Buster. Content with my many obscure interests, I knew ska was never going to be a thing in the land of my birth, and that was okay.
Fast forward to the spring of this year, when I was visiting my family in Waynesville and found some info my sister had printed about a free summer concert series in the neighboring town of Sylva. The scheduled acts for the Concerts on the Creek series ran the gamut of expected local tastes: classic rock, bluegrass, country, beach music, Jimmy Buffett covers. But hello, what’s this odd little listing?
Friday, Aug. 19: SKA City, ska music (7-9 p.m.)
ZOMG what in the…? Wait, that’s a typo, right? A ska band? Performing for my ancestral homefolk? Who are presumably meant to show up voluntarily? Is this real life? No, it couldn’t be… but yes it is.
Immediately I was determined to witness this show. More than that, I needed to connect with Ska City and find out what they’re all about. There was surely a kinship to explore here, a bond between geographically unlikely troubadours and blogger, each of us fighting the good fight for musical skappreciation in the wilds of North Carolina!
The history of Ska City dates back to 2019 when some Asheville-area musicians met up through Craigslist to form a small ska group that included Will Chatham (drums), Dennis Owenby (sax) and Vinnie Sullivan (guitar). The lineup shifted and expanded into the current population of nine Ska Citizens, rounded out by Julia Ruff (lead vocals), Rob Grace (keyboards), Garrick Smith (baritone sax), Dave Wilken (trombone), Gabe Holguin (trumpet) and Rob Heyer (bass). Rob Grace is an expatriate from Coventry, lending the enterprise a dash of authentic British ska cred. Out of the other members, Will is my only fellow native North Carolinian, with the rest drawn from various parts of the U.S. by Asheville’s renowned weirdo magnet.
So what gave Ska City the courage to skank it up in a ska-less land where black and white checkerboard means the NASCAR race is over with?
“One of the theories behind this group is that we’d either do well or go down in flames,” Vinnie says. “The reason being, is a ton of people we spoke to about doing a ska band would say, ‘SKA! Holy crap, I used to go to ska shows all the time!’ We knew the audience was there, just weren’t sure if we’d get people coming out. But we’ve been doing pretty good, getting bigger audiences and better gigs as we go along.”
Can it really be as easy as that? Ska bands are famously disrespected by the unenlightened, and us rude boys and rude girls have been subjected to simple rudeness. Has Ska City ever had to pacify a hostile crowd by resorting to “Rawhide” or “Stand by Your Man”?
“Ha! Great question. No, never had to appease a crowd,” Vinnie says. “I assume we’re winning over anyone with an open mind, if they’ve never heard of or liked ska in the first place. We pepper the set with originals and classic ska and other covers, some covers that a country fan, for example, might recognize and get into.”
And what about covers that readers of this blog might get into? Of course I had to ask Vinnie, where does Ska City stand on Madness?
“We love Madness, a few of us have been ska fans since WAY back.” Unfortunately, there are no Madness or Prince Buster numbers in Ska City’s current set, but Vinnie suggests that could change. “I’d love to do ‘One Step Beyond’ or ‘Our House,’ classics for sure.”
The Ska City show took place at Sylva’s Bridge Park, which has a nice bandstand pavilion in front of scenic Scott Creek, with a big lawn where it’s BYO folding chairs and blankets. A paved patch in front of the stage serves as the dance floor. It turns out the band previously played here in 2021, so clearly it went over well enough for them to be invited back. The gathering all-ages crowd was already showing signs of interest during the sound check, which further boded well for the evening ahead. Ska City started the show proper will a peppy take on Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” widely recognized as the Blues Brothers’ opening theme. That made me smile in light of my earlier questions about any possible Bob’s Country Bunker nightmares.
The set list shrewdly kept the band engaged with a fair number of familiar songs without at all pandering: “The Tide Is High” (originally recorded by Jamaican rocksteady group The Paragons before Blondie made it a hit), Stevie Wonder’s “You Can Feel It All Over,” Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” (rendered with the original lyric of “Brown Skinned Girl”), Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” and an inventive take on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”
But Ska City is no novelty cover band. They pride themselves on original compositions that slot in nicely beside the multi-genre standards in their set. A couple of drinking-related songs went down well with the crowd: Dennis Owenby’s “Raise Your Glass” and Dave Wilken’s “Pizza and Beer.” Another original (whose name I didn’t catch) addressed the challenges of finding romantic time with kids in the house, which must have resonated with the young parents of the rugrats running around all night. I enjoyed the band’s self-titled theme song, which Julia introduces as a primer on the meaning of ska. “There’s a little place (Ska City!) I’m gonna take you to (Ska City!) You’re gonna love it there! Bring your mama to (Ska City!)” The lyrics namecheck Prince Buster, 2 Tone, Coventry, The Specials, Selecter, The English Beat… but alas, not Madness. I has a sad. 😢
Ah well, I can forgive ’em that. I could still feel the archetypal presence of Madness at work, if only in my mind. Rob Heyer has a jazzy Bedders bounce in his bass, and Rob Grace conjures cool Barson energy in his porkpie hat and shades while laying down mellifluous organ. Most striking of all, saxman Dennis Owenby is the Lee Thompson of North Carolina, in stature as well as impish demeanor. “This next one’s a song we didn’t write,” Dennis quipped. “It’s still pretty good, though.”
Ska City had me hooked from the start. It was all over early in the set when the horn section heralded “Rudy, A Message to You” and I had to haul my ass straight to the dance floor. I did my best to exhort the crowd to take heed of Rudy’s cautionary tale, jumping around the concrete slab with some kids and a few senior citizens. (Plus the one dad in a ska T-shirt who joined in later, bless him.)
That huge classic led directly into the best moment of the night, a spectacular interpretation of “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck. Ska City is far from the first ska or reggae act to tackle this revered jazz standard, but they really nailed it. The band got a serious Skatalites stretching-out groove cooking, with about everyone taking extended solos breaks in turn – just thoroughly impressive. The other high points for me were a blazing runthrough of Toots & The Maytals’ call-and-response colossus “54-46 (Was My Number)”, and the joyous shifting tempos of Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “Come on Eileen” that closed the show with a suitable bang.
All in all, Ska City delivered an evening of personal affirmation for me, and hopefully an entertaining discovery for other attendees. People always ask “What is ska?” But it’s something you can’t explain in words, or with YouTube videos, and maybe not even by playing great records. The only way to understand ska is to hear a good band play live. In this respect, my new comrades in Ska City are doing a fine public service.
Like the song says, I literally did bring my mama to Ska City – and my sister too. And I think now they know me a little better.
Thanks to Vinnie Sullivan and Rob Grace for graciously chatting with me for this article. Check out Ska City at Ska.City and on Facebook and YouTube.
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