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Monday, April 16, 2012

The English Beat @ The Pabst Theater

April 14, 2012

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Ska is one of those genres, like swing or surf, which always seems to need to be revived. Nothing in music ever goes away completely, but in contrast to rock, rap or reggae, styles whose vitality may be debated but nevertheless remain in regular use, ska only comes to the fore every once in a while. Unfortunately, it seems to fall victim to the law of diminishing returns, but between its "first wave" in the 1960s, when Jamaican artists created an entirely new sound by putting their own spin on American R&B, and its 1990s "third wave," which devolved into a somewhat embarrassing teenage phase (my apologies to anyone still clinging to their Goldfinger and Reel Big Fish CDs), there was the relatively brief, but immensely interesting, "second wave." The British scene, which roughed up the island rhythms with a bit of punk's speed-freak energy, is often simply referred to as Two-Tone, in reference to its sharp-suited fashions, its spirit of racial unity and, most directly, the record label which released music by the subculture's biggest bands, including The Specials, Madness and The English Beat.

The group appearing tonight, led by original singer Dave Wakeling, is actually one of two bands that grew out of the remains of the English Beat proper after their 1983 breakup (other alums Ranking Roger and Everett Morton tour the UK under the act's original name The Beat), not that any of those present seemed to mind. That turnout was respectable, but overall the show didn't feel particularly well attended, despite beloved local ska stalwarts the Invaders being booked in the opening slot. People continued to filter in during the long intermission between bands, but there was no danger of not being able to find a seat in any section you desired or to stake out a place in front of the stage with the super-fans (I can forgive the signed tour t-shirt, but the studded belt and checkered tie just seem like overkill). Things felt a bit more bustling however when the band finally launched into its infectiously upbeat set and many of those previously seated decided to cram into the orchestra pit.

Between all the high-tempo skanking, Wakeling and company quickly established a convivial, casual atmosphere, filling the spaces in the set with amusing audience banter about subjects as diverse as drinking beer and Margaret Thatcher's proposed state funeral (I'll let you guess which the Milwaukeeans responded to more). Musically, even hardcore fans had little to complain about. Wakeling has assembled a crack backing band, including an endlessly energetic toaster and a sax player who blew hard enough for a full horn section, to help him pull off a marathon set loaded with audience favorites from their early singles and three studio albums. Among others, "Ranking Full Stop," "Save it for Later," "I Confess" and their hit cover of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles' "Tears of a Clown" all got lively workouts before they capped off the night with their biggest smash "Mirror in the Bathroom" (naturally). 
There's no telling when ska will once again reincarnate itself as a force to be reckoned with, or if when it does you'll actually want to listen to it, but tonight at least, it seemed alive and well.

Photo by Erik Ljung

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