This Is Ska Festival – 27-28.06.2014, Roßlau, Wasserburg

During the last few years German festival This Is Ska has earned itself the name of one of the most anticipated summer music events. Promoters who consistently invite Jamaican stars from so called top shelf, great ogranization and perfect atmosphere unreachable for most of similar parties – these are the reasons for which ska fest in Rosslau takes up the key place in holidays’ calendar.

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It was no different this time. Even though twelve months passed, memories of last year’s performances of Stranger & Patsy or Judge Dread Memorial were still alive. When information about The Tennors gig planned for next edition appeared, there was no place for doubts anymore. Rosslau, we’re coming.

So on June 27th I’ve landed on German soil again. Not alone of course. Quite a polish crew appeared on the spot, probably even bigger than last time. It’s pleasing that more and more countryman appreciate this festival. It allows to hope for a polish representation also on stage in the following years. This year’s edition didn’t surprise with any organizational changes. The medieval castle’s surroundings once again became the place of action. Everything went according to the old and well-proven plan – big main stage, smaller soundsystem one, some food-music-clothing stalls, tent site and parking place nearby. Novelty in this set was a tent in which skaraoke took place along with movie screenings and “meet & greet” with artists. I wouldn’t like to stick my neck out for that, but I haven’t noticed this element of landscape during my previous visits.

Festivals go by their own rules and due to this circumstance I kind of traditionally managed to miss first Friday stage events. During the early phase of the weekend social needs and integration with long-time-no-see friends won with gigs of bands whose names, or at least part of them, will have to stay a mystery to me for now. I’ll have to check out a band hiding under the name Hörinfarkt on some other occasion. That goes for Rude & The Lickshots too. Distemper that was previously put on schedule was substituted with Mexican band La Bolonchona. From some distance I was able to hear one and a half song. Reportedly it went quite good.

True musical experiences started with The Slackers. At the beginning I must mark that I’ve had very excessive expectations here. During my previous encounters with this band the bar has been set really high and if you add some sentimental aspects and few years of waiting for the next gig… there was some huge challenge awaiting for the Americans. Was it as perfect as I expected? Not exactly. Did they play poorly? Quite the opposite. I’m not really able to point out the mysterious X-factor that decided about some feeling of dissatisfaction after the show. Perhaps few of the songs that I waited for, were missing. Perhaps I didn’t quite like the little different tempo, faster than the one known from studio recordings. Or maybe I didn’t get completely carried away by the festival mood yet. I don’t know, something didn’t feel right. Anyway, not wanting to complain unproductively, I will also say that Vic Ruggiero and co. are true professionals in doing the show and interacting with the audience. You can’t overestimate the fact, that the line-up of the band has been more or less the same for many years now. You can hear that they are feeling great together on stage and yet they are able to express the characters of such musical individualities as Vic, Dave Hillyard, Glen Pine or Marcus Geard. Despite any of my objections, it was really great to hear “Have The Time” or „Keep Him Away” and in the future I’ll be happy to check out more than once if The Slackers are still able to bring on such feelings, as they used to.

The next who played were The Hotknives, who are actually regular visitors in Rosslau. In my opinion, chances for a bigger surprise in this case were very small. I’ve already had the opportunity to see the Brits a few times and it never was disappointing. Constant technical level, distinctive pop-flavored ska, exposure of Marc Carew’s sweated torso and choral singing – in this band’s case it’s just a proven recipe for success, invariably appreciated by the audience. I can’t say that I was very excited about this gig, but their hit songs are not getting old at all. You even don’t have to add a slogan “Don’t Go Away”, cause it’s almost sure that the guys will be back here. I’ve had some good fun to say the least and I’ve prepared myself nicely for upcoming event.

When it was completely dark, after a brief announcement by Dr. Ring Ding, who was appearing in the role of ringmaster, Easy Snappers came out on stage. They were supposed to be a backing band for a legendary duet Roy & Yvonne, but they started with their own short set, which nicely confirmed, what I’ve already heard about them. Floating rocksteady and reggae flavored with great vocal of Chatty T had perfectly built up a mood before the appearance of Jamaican stars. And what can I say about them? That’s what I wanted, that’s what I waited for. I wouldn’t stand a disappointment and luckily I didn’t have to. Singer of Easy Snappers stayed on stage as one person choir and Yvonne Harrison & Roy Panton gave their best. Oh, what happened there! If last year I’ve had some objections about vocal condition of Stranger & Patsy, this time it was much more difficult to pick on something. They both sang very well. The combination of a set of their authorial and not only hits with an absolutely amazing atmosphere in front of the stage, for which Rosslau’s festival has been famous for a long time now, made this gig by far the brightest point of Friday. Jamaicans not only sung their best known duets but also solo hits changing places by the microphone. You can sum up the whole event with the title of one the of most famous Roy’s songs – true “Endless Memory”.

At the end of the day appeared yet the Busters, who are widely recognized as stars in Germany. Years of consequent touring allowed them to achieve a very strong position on German stage and a huge base of loyal fans. They were accompanied by Dr. Ring Ding, which added some charm to their sound. Perhaps under some other circumstances I’d be able to appreciate this sound a little more, but after Roy & Yvonne’s show it was not so easy. Friday ended with a vinyl selection of Rudeboy Sound, who were also assisted by Richie Jung, the aforementioned Doctor.

At the halfway point of this report it’s worth to mention a strong polish accent at this festival, which the world premiere of Ska Delight movie undoubtedly was. It’s a film directed by Krzysztof Gajewski, also responsible for this year’s festival media coverage. During both days there have been several projections of this documentary, which is a solid cross-section of the world ska scene. The Ska Delight stars are not only the titans of this genre with roots reaching 1960s but also contemporary bands from different parts of the globe. Interviews are mixed with live shows and the narrator is none other than Dr. Ring Ding himself. The movie has been warmly received and Krzysztof and one of co-authors, Victor Quero, even had their five minutes on the main festival stage. Despite some controversy related to the process of creating this work, about which one could write a separate article and which were even mentioned during the public speech, it’s really cheering that musical productions of this significance are made in Poland.

If you honestly look at this year’s This Is Ska line-up, you must admit that gigs planned for Saturday looked much more impressive. Already at 1 pm the magnificent Doreen Shaffer was supposed to appear on stage, but at the last minute her show was cancelled. I truly adore Doreen and I’d probably despair of this turn of things, if it wasn’t for the organizers, who rose to the challenge and managed to provide a really worthy replacement. I’ve been “hunting” for Dawn Penn for a few years now, so this development of the situation caused a big smile on my face. If I haven’t mixed up anything in festival fervor Dawn was accompanied by The Magic Touch band. For me this gig was exactly as good as I expected and despite the early hour I’ve had a great time. I can’t point the reason for it, but Dawn Penn had, how shall I say, a bit flippant or even blasé attitude towards her songs. It didn’t affect the general positive reception in any way or translate to quality. It actually even added some charm to the gig. I’m just mentioning it as a curiosity. “You Don’t Love Me” sounded exactly as perfect as I wished. You could say that by accident I managed to make one of my small dreams come true.

A little later Bluekilla had taken over the stage. I’ve seen those guys before, once even at the beginning of this year, so I knew more or less, what to expect. Good gig, no special fireworks. Despite early evening Germans were able to assemble quite an audience and provoke it to dance. After that I skipped Unlimiters and Offenders, to show up in front of the stage just before 6 pm.

That’s when the gig of Venezuelan band Big Mandrake, which I was very curious about, had started. I’ve seen this team from Caracas twice already, both times in Warsaw, each time in a club. Despite the fact it’s strong ska-punk, which I don’t usually apply myself too eagerly, both concerts were true petards. Only few days after Venezuelans lit a small crowd in the polish capital, I was very interested if they’ll be able to repeat this trick during a festival. I wasn’t disappointed. Interaction with much bigger audience – level expert, fantastic sound of brass section by which they proved, that they’re able to play much more than just ska-punk, vocal & choreographic show by charismatic leader – all that couldn’t have met reaction other than full enthusiasm. Perfect fun in South American style. I’d wish to hear a little less punk rock and more Jamaica in their music, but anyway this gig was for sure a big plus. It’s worth to add that during the whole European tour their bass player was Victor Quero, mentioned already in connection with Ska Delight. Another nice accent is the presence of Big Mandrake members in the crowd during next gigs. That reflects well their honest commitment to the scene, which they’re certainly co-creating.

Another stars of This Is Ska were The Toasters, the longest playing American ska band. You never know how it’s gonna be with Bucket & co. and I guess it’s mostly because of that “co.” part. Few years ago I’ve had my serious doubts about Rob Hingley and his “2Tone Army”. My faith was restored during their last gig in Warsaw. It was all good again, as it should be. In Rosslau it wasn’t worse. The band played chilled and relaxed, you could hear a well-oiled machine having lots of fun on stage. All famous hits sounded fresh and gently. This is the kind of gigs that I like. If The Toasters can maintain current shape, I hope they’ll continue playing for next thirty years.

Kind of a “new opening” of the evening was Boss Capone appearing on stage, which meant musical aesthetics rather different than those presented by previous bands. Boss from the band’s name is Boss van Trigt, vocalist of The Upsessions and the sound he offered was juicy skinhead reggae, the sound I’ve been impatiently waiting for from the beginning of the festival. After what I’ve heard from their record, I had to be more than optimistic. It was great, it was perfect. Hips were moving all by themselves and the only thing I lacked to complete happiness was solid heat. True beach music in best possible performance, brilliant keyboard and perfectly fitting vocal. That’s what I like, that’s what I love. Dutch rose to the challenge and met my not at all low expectations. True Boss!

Then, again, was another change of genre and Buster Shuffle appeared on stage. That’s the band I appreciate a lot. There are different opinions about them. I like both – the records and live versions. After what I’ve seen at the beginning of the year in Berlin, I was expecting a bomb – I got what I wanted. This band on stage is pure energy and they know how to unleash the same kind of energy from their fans. Miracles, that the vocalist and keyboard player in one person makes, are really hard to describe with words. You’d have to see that. I’ll only say that playing keys with his butt is not the only trick he can surprise the audience with. A little madness-like Brit sound is perfectly completed with the second voice, Carrie. Songs like “Our Night Out” or “Doesn’t Matter” are ultimate live hits. Crowd goes nuts, festival’s temperature is rising, it’s getting better and better…

… and at this point it’s gotta be only better, cause right now the stage is being taken over by the legendary Tennors supported by musicians from Magic Touch, already proven with Dawn Penn. This is one of those gigs you dream about for years, you have dreams about them at night, you shout “pull up” during them and for more than an hour the rest of the world doesn’t exist. “Ride Your Donkey”, “Sufferer”, “Another Scorcher”, “Pressure and Slide”, “Baby Come Home”, “Massi Massa” – this is even too much for one gig. One stands stalled and can’t believe that it’s really happening. It doesn’t matter that it’s Clive Tennors getting most of the job done. It’s still best and nothing can change that. “Cleopatra” live is top of the dreams and full happiness. “You’ve got a smile like Mona Lisa” – I sing with the crowd and I feel that it’s never gonna be better. After 35-years break The Tennors triumphantly won the hearts of audience members, who weren’t ever born, when the band has been recording their biggest hits. Until now they knew them only from scratchy vinyls played for million times during parties. I don’t want to use some mystical tone, but it really is a truly epic experience, that you might tell your children stories about.

Live shows scene was closed by El Bosso & Die Ping Pongs. After The Tennors they couldn’t make a big impression on me, but I have to honestly admit, that they gathered a really big crowd. I see here a certain idea – the organizers ended Friday in a similar way with fast german ska Busters gig. I don’t quite get this concept, but apparently the audience judged it differently. Personally I’ve had some fun during “Renn Los” song and I’ll restrain myself to this short review. That time I only wanted to shout “This Is Rocksteady” and I found some release for that floating energy on the soundsystem scene, where I danced for a long time to classic hits served by Rudeboy Sound.

When it looked like after last year’s edition there cannot be a bigger success here, once more it occurred that the bar may be set even higher. I have no idea, with what This Is Ska is gonna surprise in 2015, but they’re gonna have to try really hard to beat this year’s cut. If they won’t lay low, one thing is for sure. You gotta be there.

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