Apple Stomp 2013 Recap: Reunited ’90s Heroes Anchor Two-Day Ska Summit
At its best and worst, ska is a fraternal order. Like the ones found on college campuses, it draws its share of steakhead louts, but if you're the type of person turned on by hooky horns and hiccuping guitars, the music offers -- and maybe even mandates -- lifetime membership in a small yet inclusive club. This weekend marked something of an East Coast summit, as New York City's Irving Plaza played host to Apple Stomp, a two-day showcase of ska in all its forms, from suave old-school Jamaican-style dance fare to aerobic American goof-core offshoots.
It was fitting that local heroes the Slackers closed out the festival -- few have done it for longer, and none have done it better -- and while they were worth sticking around for, even after six hours of sweaty lead-up, NYC ska heads have the luxury of seeing the group on a somewhat regular basis. That's why the real draws on Saturday (June 1) were a couple of bands that broke up following ska's brief late-'90s boom period and seldom have reasons this good to reform.
One of those is Mephiskapheles, a hometown crew that blew minds back in the '90s with its satanic shtick and crack musicianship. Meph split up in 2001 and only recently got back together, and day two of Apple Stomp was a rare chance to once again worship at the dark altar of some true (and truly bizarre) originals.
"D-o-g, g-o-d!" barked singer Andre A. Worrell, aka the Nubian Nightmare, aka the Grand Invidious, at the top of the set, getting plenty of help from the near-capacity crowd. So goes the intro to 'Mephiskapheles,' the band's theme song and entire steez squeezed into five minutes of blaring jazz-punk horns and cockeyed lyrics.
The band boasts a horn-and-keyboard lineup fairly typical for the genre, but they've also got an upright bass, and on highlight 'Break Your Ankle Punk,' Worrell presided over an unholy skronk-hop mash of Ornette Coleman, the Wu-Tang Clan and the Skatalites. "It's ska meets the Bronx," Worrell sang, sounding only slightly more sinister than he would on 'The Bumblebee Tuna Song' (exactly what you'd think) and 'Doomsday,' the closest thing Meph ever had to a hit.
These guys could very easily come across as a novelty act, like so many of their third-wave ska peers, but Meph plays with such straight-faced intensity that each tune makes you feel a little guilty, like you just danced your ass of to something sick and depraved.
Wedged between Meph and the Slackers were Connecticut's Spring Heeled Jack, who brought a completely different vibe with their smiley rock-ska tunes. Yet another group that flirted with mainstream success before calling it quits in the early '00s, SHJ proved why they're not simply the quintessential '90s ska band, what with their run-in-place pacing, earworm brass riffs and massive choruses. They might also be the quintessential '90s suburban guitar band, an amalgam of ska, Blink-182 pop-punk, Get Up Kids emo and, on at least one tune, 'Pop Song (Green)' -- presented Saturday by co-frontmen Ron Ragona and Mike Pellegrino as a stripped-down guitar-only sing-along -- earnest post-Nirvana radio-friendly alt-rock.
'Pop Song' was their Goo Goo Dolls/Verve Pipe moment, and if it wasn't as much fun as 'Waiting, Watching' and closer 'Jolene,' the kinds of ska tunes that crossed over to '120 Minutes' back in the day, it was a reminder of why Spring Heeled Jack are so loveable -- and why the Benevolent Order of Skankers is an organization still deserving of your dues.