Someone had to do it: Ska Weekend 2006 in Knoxville, Tennessee was simply too breathtaking to go without any review at all. I'm going to start this off with some observations about the event that have no relevance to the music, so skip the next paragraph if you want to get straight to the meat.
We rolled into Knoxville on Friday evening, and all I can say is that it's an odd town: quaint, sort of the quintessential southern burg with a touch of college town sensibility thrown in. Not all that appealing, but that was before the hotel; the Crown Plaza was the only option for those who were walking to the show, and it was, well, nice. Luckily, 50 rooms worth of rudies were able to bring it and the Rotary Club members that were also staying there down a couple of notches, and needless to say, the hotel parties on Friday and Saturday were nothing short of fantastic. But enough about that, what about the ska?
Simply put, I could tell the minute I walked into 'gates' that this was going to be a great time; the weather was perfect (cloudy but not raining and a consistent 70 degrees all day), and the city block that had been closed down lent itself perfectly to 4 stages of ska mayhem. In an interesting and appreciated move, the reggae stage was inside of a local bar, meaning that those who wanted to rest, get a drink or some great pizza could do so in a cool place without missing out on the music, unlike the food tents at most outdoor festivals.
Starting at 1 P.M. sharp, the Flatliners kicked off what I would call the 2nd worst set of the day, which surprised me; I normally enjoy their brand of poppy goodness, however they seemed out of synch on this particular day. They burnt through their set quick enough though, and luckily our fortunes were to improve when we moved to the 21 Dead Monkeys stage to see In the Face.
I was initially not sure what to think of In the Face; at the pre-party, they seemed like a group of skinhead jackasses, to generalize, so I didn't expect to care for the music. Second impressions are good things though; these guys rocked with an amazingly energetic set that charged through hard-hitting ska-punk with reggae-style vocals that kept me skanking the whole way through. Additionally, I talked to them afterwards and they seemed like genuinely good guys.
From there it was onto see the dub stylings of Bombtown, who played another musically tight, energetic set of slower, reggae beats, yet they were missing the elements of a truly memorable band. After their set ended, I was pulled aside by Boston and her crew to go see Stuck Lucky, who I'd never heard of but were assured were fun, and they were. I only caught the first fifteen minutes of their set and yet the pit was among the best I'd be a part of that day, as the fast-paced ska action pumped up the crowd gathered around the small stage.
The Tossers were next on the main stage, and while I can see how people were upset that they were added to a ska festival, I do love their music and realize it was a last-minute addition to the lineup that came only because they were with Catch 22 at the time. They didn't disappoint me, as Tony was drunk enough to be funny (blessing the crowd), but not so drunk that he couldn't sing (last Philly show of theirs I went to). They played a good mix of faster and slower Celtic tunes that they're so known for, include staples of their live set "Good Morning Dad, I'm in Jail," and "No Booze, No Loot, No Fun."
By 2:30, I was a bit worn out from all the dancing, so I headed into Barley's to grab some food and check out the bands on stage; unfortunately, I came in at a bad time, catching only the tail end of Fat Penguin's set before an extended intermission for the remainder of my time in the bar. Luckily, the wings more than made up for that loss. I stayed in chatting with various kids until heading back to the 21DM stage to see Fatter Than Albert, who I'd never heard of but hey, they had a cool name. That was about all they had going for them, though. Problem is, there are any number of ska-punk bands around that sound good; to be mediocre doesn't make you worth listening to. This was FTA's problem, in that although the music sounded good, the vocals were as terrible as anything I'd hear all day and they weren't all that exciting.
Thankfully, the High School Football Heroes were there to brighten my day. They played a good mix of their songs that wasn't much different than any other sets I'd heard them play, but, well, they don't really need to be. The energy they brought to their set was tremendous, and it brought out the best in the fans. After they finished, I spent some time perusing the merch tables, spent way more than I wanted to, made some new friends and met some old ones, just killing time until Deals Gone Bad took the Jump Up stage. The lead vocalist had crashed with us the night before and he seemed like a cool guy, so I was interested in checking out their sound, which was impressive. The guys from Chicago played a nice, tight set that wasn't too long as to become tiresome. Tony Duggins, who had been drinking throughout the day, was doing little jigs next to me as they played, a funny sight to watch and one that inspired the crowd around us to pick up the skankin'. We had intended to see the Know How next, but that plan never really came to fruition as I got distracted talking to the guys from Razbari Sumthing as they set up for their set.
Let me tell you a little something about the 5-piece out of Syracuse: They were, hands down, the surprise of the festival. In the crowded category of ska-punk, they rise up over the rest with an excellent blend of energetic performances, stage antics, and just incredibly catchy tunes. Not to mention they were cool dudes outside their performance. I highly, highly advise that anyone reading this check them out, you won't regret it.
The last band of the day on the 21DM stage was Long Shot Hero, who play a style of ska that doesn't really appeal to me at all, sounding similar to Link 80 with a bit of any random mallcore band. Needless to say, I only stayed until Big D was ready for action on the main stage.
Now, Big D isn't my favorite band around, their live show was never 'great,' even though I've seen them quite a lot…but I knew this set wasn't going to be much to listen to when Dave informed the audience that he had been "shooting hot diarrhea out his ass" (where else?) all night and that he and two other bandmates felt like hell after a nasty bout of food poisoning. The sickness was reflected in the out-of-synch feel of the set, complete with a rendition of "L.A.X." in which Dave looked like he was about to collapse onstage. I respect them dragging themselves out to play, but it just didn't turn out well. The one redeeming factor of the set was that they played "New England," a song they rarely perform live. After that it was a quick trip back into the bar for a quick drink in the downtime until the Pietasters were ready to play.
The Pietasters have always been a favorite band of mine, blending funk, ska, and any number of other genres, and since they don't tour too often anymore it was a treat to see them live. They played a thankfully longer set, giving them ample time to burn through a great set list that included favorites like "Night Owl," "Girl Take It Easy," "Maggie May," and of course the massive circle pit that came with the closer, "Drunk Driving."
It didn't take Catch 22 long to get set up and get into their set. Now, while I don't agree that they should have had top billing in this fest, I do believe that they get far too much hate simply because of their name; their latest release really washed the bad taste of Dinosaur Sounds out of my mouth. Still, the live show was rather mediocre, and while it's fun to hear songs off Keasbey, it hardly seemed worth sticking around for.
And that was it…but it wasn't. The Mysterious Matt Wixson, who had played at the gates prior to the show, played again with Chris and Lee from I Voted for Kodos, and a Catch 22 member performed an acoustic version of "On & On & On." The after-parties at Barley's and the hotel were…amazing, from what I heard. Sadly, I had to leave to drive back to Charlotte to catch a flight the next morning.
All in all, a great time was had by all, I guarantee I'll be back next year and I'd encourage anyone who loves the ska to do whatever it takes to make it.