“Two roads before you, and you must make your choice,” legendary ska singer Roy Panton intoned during the final night of the 2013 Montreal Ska Festival. His words aptly described the contrast between the final two nights of the festival, though thankfully for many Montreal ska fans, they didn’t have to make a decision.
Friday night’s events took place at Café Campus, and it was clear from the wide assortment of hair colours, piercings, and ripped jeans among the crowd what kind of a night this would be. Sure enough, once local band The Real Deal took the stage, the near-capacity venue was consumed by spirited fans gleefully moshing with one another and an infectious outbreak of crowdsurfing. Their set consisted of songs that mostly sounded like Blink-182 B-sides, but the audience wasn’t willing to let The Real Deal’s derivative tunes get in the way of them having a good time.
After The Real Deal played, Montreal favourites Kman and the 45s, a band the audience responded to by ratcheting up their exuberance even further. Their efforts were rewarded with several ska covers of Ramones classics halfway through the set, which were easily its highlight.
The night concluded with veterans Big D and the Kids Table which were clearly the act that most people had come out to see that night. Frontman David McWane fed the crowd’s excitement with an immediate burst of energy upon taking the stage, which didn’t wane over the course of the set. The crowd matched his enthusiasm, and by the end of their set, most seemed more than willing to listen to them for the rest of the night.
Saturday night brought a shift to the larger and more upscale Club Soda: here, both the makeup of the audience and the music itself reflected the change in venue. Gone were the ripped jeans, dreadlocks, and faded plaid jackets that had permeated Café Campus; instead, they were replaced by slacks, grey hair, and collared shirts.
Chicago act Green Room Rockers made it immediately clear that Saturday was going to be different with a melodic guitar solo from Ryan Frahm that showed a level of virtuosity not seen in any of Friday’s bands. Frahm’s playing only improved as the set progressed. His proficiency was complemented by the range of genres that could be heard as they played. The impressive scope of their music was encapsulated by “You and I,” a song that began with a 12/8 gospel feel, before seamlessly transitioning into a 4/4 Jimmy Cliff-esque reggae sound.
Next came Panton and Yvonne Harrison, who were backed by Minnesota band The Prizefighters. Their seemingly effortless vocals were a welcome contrast to the testosterone-laden shouts that dominated Friday’s sets. Harrison’s vocals in particular cut above the band in a way that drew attention to their simple elegance.
The night ended with veteran New York City band The Slackers. Like Green Room Rockers, their set welcomed a variety of styles ranging from ska to rocksteady to rockabilly. The Slackers were helped by saxophonist Dave Hillyard, whose witty quote of the standard “I’ll Remember You” (popularized by Elvis Presley) in an early solo was only one of many delightful moments throughout the night.
The festival concluded with an after-party at Ye Olde Orchard that featured local band Danny Rebel and the KGB. The crowd practically danced on top of the band, bringing back the grungy feel that had been prevalent on Friday. Truly, there was something for all sorts of Jamaican music fans at the 2013 Montreal Ska Festival.