A full moon hangs over the Festival Hub, as ska fans of all ages are drawn to what promises to be one of the finest Australian ska line-ups in history. Not only are all the legendary clichés out in force (pork pie hats, mod suits, Specials t-shirts and moonstomp boots), but the true multicultural nature of the genre, lifestyle and its current status in the music firmament is out in all its glory.
The Melbourne Festival’s idea of celebrating ska involves engaging more than the ears tonight; the scent of jerk chicken wafts over a booth that shows 1950s instructional videos on how do dance ska, but the main reason we are here is for the music itself.
Twelve-piece collective Ska Vendors pack out a sweaty room by 8PM and show you what it is that is so fantastic about ska. The energy, talent and sheer danceability of the music is undeniable and the audience respond enthusiastically. After a short, exuberant set, two women, Marie and Victoria teach us basic ska dance moves before Melbourne legends Strange Tenants take to the stage. Opening with the searing Soldier Boy the band, apparently showcasing their original lineup for the first time in around 30 years, show their political stripes. With so little change in social concerns since their formation the songs feel as vital as when they debuted at the Lygon St Festival in 1981. The blazing Two Steps Back, the mellow Grey Skies and the furious Zombie Killers inspire a passionate response from the audience, many of who look over 60 but dance as if they were 16 and drunk for the first time. It’s an exhilarating sight. Guitarist Johnny Holmes and the peerlessly tight rhythm section are the highlight, as is the introduction to the two youngest members of the band, sons of Holmes and singer Ian Hearn, inspiring hope that the band will be around for another 32 years.
Headlining the night, and indeed the history of ska in Australia, are the ska/calypso/mento legends The Caribs, reuniting for only the second time in 52 years. With a near-unbelievable story of moving from Melbourne to Jamaica to become the country’s first studio band, performing to Winston Churchill and backing Ben E King, the fact that the founding members are here at all is a privilege all appreciate. Backed by members of the Melbourne Ska Orchestra and the Strange Tenants, the septuagenarians resurrect pioneering cuts such as Taste of Honey, Your Eyes are Dreaming and their sultry Jamaican hit Taboo inspire euphoric responses. Guitarist Dennis Sindrey (now living in Florida), keys player Peter Stoddart (still living in Jamaica) despite being the true stars, effortlessly hand the stage over to a litany of guests; Patou Powell, Rodrigo Pino and Sarah Heffernan all shine, but the Caribs made the light.