I was fourteen the first time I found myself in a mosh pit. One Friday night, I skulked into a cramped all-ages venue to find a smattering of too-cool teens standing at a careful distance from the stage in typical aloof-punk posture: arms crossed, backs straight. But as soon as the music started, a frenzy of upbeat horn blasts and garage-punk power chords, the crowd transformed. A stranger grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into a swirling circle dotted with the same too-cool kids now dancing unselfconsciously together, around and around, punching their fists in the air and kicking their steel-toed boots in a two-step timed to the vocalist’s melodic wail. Limbs flailing and mouth agape in exhausted glee, I danced for what felt like hours. At the end of the set, I emerged from the pit tired, sweaty, and smiling.
That was my introduction to ska, a musical genre defined as much by its wide mélange of influences, ranging from traditional Caribbean rhythms to R&B and UK punk, as the niche community that return to shows year after year to guzzle that unique elixir of upbeat tempos and unbridled fervor for infectious, danceable rhythms. The Virginia Ska Fest, a Fredericksburg-based festival dedicated to celebrating ska culture, was held for the first time last July. That show’s tickets sold out entirely, so this year the schedule has been expanded to two days, July 24 and 25 at the Blue and Gray Brewing Company.
Tim Receveur is the driving force behind the festival. A freelance booking agent, he finds the free time to put together these kind of community events while working his day at the PeaceTech Lab at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC. Building on last year’s successes, Tim is excited to lay the groundwork for an event that the Fredericksburg community will continue to look forward to year after year. “We’re hoping to build something that’s sustainable,” he says, “We’re just making the footprint a lot bigger this year, kind of branching it out. Next year we’re looking to get even bigger.”
Regarding the band lineup, there’s a slew of heavy hitters and underground acts alike. The former category includes The Pietasters who are gearing up to play for the second year in a row. As their frontman Steve Jackson enthuses, “Tim is the most amazing guy I’ve met in a long time. Last year it was a good time, and this year Tim doubled the size of the event. It’s people like him that keep the scene going.”
Based in DC, The Pietasters got their start in the early 90s at Virginia Tech house shows where, as Steve quips, they were mostly just “playing to get free beer.” From those humble beginnings, the band grew into one of the mainstays of the third-wave ska scene, a subculture that has since risen from its pop-radio ashes. Over the decades, they have played at hundreds venues and festivals around the country and internationally. But through it all, they’ve enjoyed a close-knit hometown community of diehard fans and musical peers. “You always end up crossing paths or playing festivals,” Steve says, “It is a pretty small scene. But that’s the whole reason we started and continue to play music, it’s just fun to see people have fun and enjoy themselves.”
In such a cozy community with long-enduring bands, membership crossover is inevitable. Eastern Standard Time, a traditionally rooted world-ska outfit also on the festival’s bill, is probably the best example of this dynamic. Drummer James McDonald founded the group in 1995 along with The Pietasters’s former bassist Chris Watts. James recounts, “We got together and said, let’s see what happens when we try and use the original recipe for ska,” a mix of Caribbean rhythms, two-tone, early Jazz, and R&B, “and see what kind of music comes out.” EST’s lineup has remained consistently fluid with band members coming and going and, coming up their twentieth anniversary, James is proud of their evergreen role as an incubator for talent in DC. “To see band mates go on and play in other groups and be successful in their life, it’s phenomenal,” he says, “You get these bands, they were doing shows just as kids. Then over time, things get more and more solid and they get more and more confidence and they find their voice and, all of a sudden, there’s this amazing band that comes out of it.”
Murphy’s Kids, a Richmond-based ska-punk favorite, will be performing at Virginia Ska Fest for the first time this year. They’re one of those bands who have been together and performing since middle school. Bouncing through a smattering of suburban garages in the early aughts, they now play a signature brand of story-infused, fire-in-the-belly ska to large crowds in venues like the 9:30 Club and The Broadberry. Fifteen years into their tenure, John Charlet, the group’s lead singer, is quick to note the positive aspects of longevity in a close-knit scene. “You get to meet a lot of your heroes,” he confides.
My interview with Murphy’s Kids happened right before their performance at The Broadberry on a recent Friday night. As I stood amid the crowd, John perched his toes at the edge of the stage, eyes wide and glinting with streaks of green and purple light. He surveyed the undulating bodies below him, sweating and swaying in a heady tornado of frantic feet and swinging limbs, a Cheshire grin spread widely across his face. His earlier words, echoing the passion of Tim Receveur, bounced around my brain like so many bobbing heads circling the dancefloor. “We have to have the most fun,” John says, “If we don’t have fun, everything falls apart. To us, that’s our goal now. We want to have more fun than anybody. We want to win the party. We want to sweat, we want to rub it on you, we want you to rub it on your neighbor. That’s what keeps me going at least.”
2015 Virginia Ska Fest will be held at the Blue & Gray Brewery on July 24-25. Event details and tickets available at virginiaskafest.com.