The Skatalites | Live Review

By Darren Paul Thompson

Last night I made my maiden pilgrimage to Trinity in Bristol, an acclaimed, slightly ‘off-the-beaten-track’ venue that has tempted me a few times in the past with offerings from Gorillaz, Zion Train and Laid Blak, amongst others.

Approaching from afar, it’s thick stone construction and towering spires formed an impressive backdrop within which to host a gig. Once inside I grabbed a cider and followed the bassline, weaving my way between the bodies that swayed lightly early in the night, noticing I was flanked either side by ornate pillars and stained glass windows; I felt slightly in awe of my environment, whilst a little sacrilegious at the same time.

Further sacrilegious undercurrents came as a result of my relative inexperience of The Skatalites back-catalogue, which, as a self-proclaimed Reggae enthusiast, was an issue that needed addressing. Not set to take the stage for a further fourty-five minutes or so though, I had time to check out the support act, ‘The Resonators’. They were already deep into the swing of things, all eight of them bouncing around the stage with great energy, delivering waves of heavy bass to the audience who skanked easily to their dub-like foundations.

Photographers darted around the front of the stage, angling their equipment in a dynamic battle for the best shot, their ears dangerously close to the colossal, booming speakers. Meanwhile, the rest of the room enjoyed the rhythms, moving side-to-side over a dusty wooden floor like that of a ‘Boy Scouts’ village hall, only one in which ‘Akela’ had been replaced by a Jamaican soundsystem.

Topping off their set, live trumpet and sax gave an extra dimension to their sound, adding to the rest of the band that had all invested so much over the duration of their performance. As I later heard a few people say in the interval, with which I’d agree, “They’re one of the best support acts I’ve seen in ages”.

With anticipation for ‘The Skatalites’ raising, a brief announcement was given from the stage noting that the band had previously played on the same bill as Bob Marley, Toots and the Maytals and Jimmy Cliff amongst others; my inexperience was all the more evident now, as was my desire to get learning!

Shortly after the band met the stage and took their marks, they opened with a powerful kick of bass that drove straight into my chest like the impact of an eighteen wheeler draped in green, black and gold; it was ska party time!

Forming a really broad sound on stage, the band consisted of keys, drums, multiple saxophones, a trumpet, trombone, bass, rhythm guitar and a few vocalists… at a rough tally. Creating a rich sound between them, they were each allowed time for a solo to tear the place up in enjoyable fashion, often stretching song times close to ten minutes to accommodate their freestyling within the breakdowns. As a fan of live music, this was great news, especially given the ability of the musicians on stage, who effortlessly carved out their own narratives within each solo on offer.

Reminding me of the superb ‘Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’, the Skatalites’ live energy and raw, brass-orientated sound was a real spectacle, and one that was well-received by a Bristol crowd that skanked, flamenco-danced and generally went a bit mental at the command of the music!

Were their huge jam-session tracks not quirky enough, a rendition of the James Bond theme tune in Ska-form dialled the novelty up a step further, shortly before the rhythm guitarist unleashed an effortlessly smooth lead solo that brought a smile to my face with its instinctive ‘cool’; exactly the type of solo I’m still struggling to learn on guitar myself!

Joined on the stage mid-way through the set by original Skatalites vocalist Doreen Shaffer, the crowd embraced the band with further warmth, a warmth returned with feel-good classic, ‘My Boy Lollipop’. Looking around me, dreadlocks were swaying, a few elder gentlemen in Fedora hats were nodding and grooving animatedly whilst a few graceful, elder ladies danced joyously in their Sunday best; the appeal of the Skatalites seemed truly universal.

The band dipped into some Marley with ‘Nice Time’, then ironically spilled into ‘Simmer Down’ at precisely the moment I noticed the collective sweat of the room, the crowd thoroughly beaded with perspiration amongst the baking heat forming indoors.

Then, as if the current session were only a warm-up, original band member Lester Sterling announced that they were about to, “Bring the Jamaican SunSplash to you! …HIT IT!”

Dressed in the dynamic combination of black chequered hat, red striped T-shirt and desert camouflage trousers (with sunglasses), Lester’s eccentrically vibrant dress-sense was mirrored in his music as he let rip on the sax, backed powerfully by Trilby and waistcoat-adorned drummer Trevor ‘Sparrow’ Thompson. Their energy was matched by another superb solo on lead guitar by Natty Frenchy, who slipped in Hendrix’s iconic ‘Voodoo Child’ lick to an excited response; an unexpected but welcome piece of guitar-based flair.

Taking a moment to look around me, I saw that there was superb movement and interaction right up through the crowd to the sound desk, which is generally pretty rare. Where normally after the first few rows movement peters into the occasional toe-tap, the Trinity really seemed to be rocking, front to back! This rocking briefly appeared to be ending at 11pm as scheduled, however the Skatalites had other ideas. Returning to the stage to a great round of applause, they tried unwinding the audience (though only slightly) with Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’, before dipping into ‘A Message to you Rudy’, then drawing one final, triumphant burst of energy from the audience with ‘The Guns of Navarone’, nearly two hours after they first took to the stage.

Hot, sweaty and in some cases smelly, the crowd had been blasted with feel-good vibes and expert musicianship over the course of the evening. As long overdue as it was, my first visit to the Trinity was a great one that won’t be topped easily. As for the Skatalites, I’m very pleased that I managed to jump on the bandwagon late, rather than never, as whilst the wagon may now be considered vintage, the engine is still loud and there’s plenty more fuel in the tank.