Wednesday evening I was walking along the seawall in inner harbor of Victoria and loving life. It was sunny, 25C, and there was sparkling ocean all around me. As I rounded the causeway I heard a familiar chord progression in the distance and realized that Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” was playing. As I walked closer I noticed that this was a different version of the song…it was an amazing Ska cover and I knew I was headed in the right direction. I arrived at Ship’s Point, the site of Victoria’s 13th Annual SkaFest, just in time to see the Natural Flavas wrap up their set. After Adele’s chart topping tune they played a couple more covers, and closed with my favorite one “Waiting in Vain” by Bob Marley. From what I heard, this Vancouver based reggae band were extremely tight and versatile which was showcased by Patrick “Dr. Watson” Quine’s vocals.
There was then a 20 minute break for the next band to set up.
SkaFest calls itself “Festival of the People”, I think because of the amazing ability to put on free shows which anyone can attend and because Ska music encompasses so many genres, everyone can find something that they can rock out to. Ska music became popular in the 1960’s and if you haven’t heard of it before, is a mix of Jamaican mento, punk and jazz. Other well-known genres like Reggae and Rocksteady are associated with Ska. However, at SkaFest you can hear Country, Bluegrass, Protest, Ragtime and many other kinds of songs from bands from all over the world.
The next band to play was Blackberry Wood, who were pretty much the polar opposite of Natural Flavas. The first thing that caught my attention about Blackberry was their outfits. The lead singer was wearing a white tailcoat and top hat, the sax player was wearing a corset and stockings and the trumpet player had a crinoline skirt on, no wonder they classify themselves as Gypsy Circus. When they started playing it was like I was hit with a wall of sound. The horns were perfectly in sync as they played through their set. They covered tunes like the Muppets’ theme song and old standards from 30’s vaudeville as well as playing tunes of their own. Their energy was incredible; it was like I was watching a theatrical performance with every song. One song in particular, which they referred to as the “Saddest Song in the World”, started off with half the band crawling on the stage sobbing. Other songs like “Mary” were upbeat and the members danced and bounced around the stage. The band engaged the audience in creative participation; during one song the crowd was split in half and then a dance contest ensued. During the next song, which the band claimed was about bicycles, they had the entire crowd, young and old, sitting on the ground, feet in the air as if we were peddling bicycles. Basically I could write an entire review on the epic-ness of Blackberry Wood.
The last band play was Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra. These local guys, who in the beginning of their careers could be seen jamming by the fountain at the University of Victoria, have come a long way and have had the chance to record their most recent EP in Nashville. I had high hopes for TMO and was a bit disappointed when they first started playing; I thought “I was on such a high from Blackberry and this next band is so quiet” but once the sound guy got it together TMO met my every expectation. The five-piece orchestra includes a stand-up bass, mandolin, bongo, fiddle and accordion and they played a mix of Spanish, Italian, Country and Ska influenced music. They even played one song, with half of the lyrics in Italian and half in Russian. There were great sing-a-long moments with TMO especially on the songs Well, Well, Well and Ciao Bella, Ciao. The most impressive thing about TMO was their musicianship; you could tell that they were all amazingly trained which added to the complexity of their music.
My favorite quote from SkaFest, and I think this encompasses the essence of the festival, was when Kurt Loewen from Tequlia Mockingbird Orchestra said “only at SkaFest will you find people crowdsurfing to bluegrass music”.