Getting at the Root of Ska
Veterans the Pietasters Look to the '60s for Recent Inspiration

By Mark Jenkins
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 26, 2009

When the Pietasters began performing in 1990, they were college students inspired by the ska revival that began in Britain more than a decade before.

Today, the band members are all grown up, with families and day jobs. Yet their love of ska has propelled them further into the past, learning and performing songs from the style's early-'60s beginnings, as well as soul tunes from the same era.

"We love '60s style," says Stephen Jackson, who has fronted the ska/soul octet since it was founded in Blacksburg, Va. "And we play a lot of soul and reggae covers."

In fact, on "All Day," their latest CD, the Pietasters playfully fantasize that their own songs are '60s artifacts. The album's inside cover depicts each of the 14 tracks as a seven-inch single, with imaginary labels that resemble those of Motown.

Named after a British term for guys who carry a few extra pounds, the Pietasters began as part of the third great awakening of ska. The horn-driven music, whose jumpy rhythm is not unlike polka's, originated in Jamaica in the early 1960s. It was revived in Britain in the late-'70s, when punk fans sought a change of pace. Such U.K. bands as the Specials and Madness inspired an American ska movement a decade later. Eventually, that scene yielded such chart-toppers as No Doubt.

Although the Pietasters never tasted that sort of fame, they performed full time for much of the 1990s, touring frequently. These days the group is a part-time pursuit, because the musicians have, as Jackson puts it, "all kinds of old-man things going on in our lives. I'm remodeling my house, and the drummer's got a new baby."

Now the band sticks mostly to the East Coast, playing to crowds that range from teenage new recruits to longtime fans in their 30s and 40s. But once or twice a year, the group undertakes a longer trek.

In 2008, it toured Britain, still a ska hotbed. "Growing up in the '80s listening to Two-Tone ska, we were teenagers who were trying to be like British kids," recalls the easygoing Jackson, now an Alexandria resident.

The fans in the United Kingdom "all know the correct size of suspenders and the right three-button suits to wear," the singer says with a laugh. But it's not just about fashion, he adds. "When someone is that much into the subculture, they pay attention to your whole catalogue, as opposed to just the latest thing."

In 2007, the Pietasters toured Brazil and Eastern Europe. Since few listeners in either place spoke English, the musicians couldn't tell if they were already fans. "When we're onstage and we win them over, I don't care why they're there, as long as they're enjoying the music," Jackson says.

The European jaunt took the band as far as Croatia, the birthplace of Jackson's father (whose surname was then Jaksekovic). "It's one of the perks of being in this band," the singer says. "We can see places that we would otherwise never have an opportunity to. And help people have fun at the same time."

More than a dozen musicians have left the Pietasters over the years, including most of the original lineup after a grueling 1993 cross-country tour. The latest to exit is bassist Jorge Pezzimenti, who feared for his hearing. He's one of the band's principal songwriters, and Jackson expects that to continue.

"We were already working on two or three songs before he announced his departure, and I told him we were going to record them whether he likes it or not," the vocalist says. "And we've got other good songwriters in the band."

Jackson is one of them, but he tends to talk of himself more as the band's driver and tour manager than as a musician. He plays down his robust baritone, which handles classic soul material as well as it does the group's ska, reggae and garage-rock originals.

"I'm just trying to sing like the people I enjoy listening to," he says. "If you persevere at almost anything long enough, you become better at it.'"

Told that he has a natural gift, Jackson seems a little surprised. "I'm just a guy who drives the van in a bar band," he replies. "I'm glad that people like the way I sing."

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