SUNDAY night is the third in the Weekend's Weekends free summer concert series. Beginning at 7:30 at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre, it's local ska bands the Pietasters and Skalicious, along with Boston faves Big D & the Kids Table. At last week's concert, lots of folks were reading the program and asking me: "What's ska?" Ska began in Jamaica in the early '60s, as a home-grown version of American horn-driven soul and R&B, the likes of which was coming out of places like Philadelphia and Detroit. Ska revved things up a bit (think of a really fast polka) and became the island's popular dance style before it evolved, more or less, into reggae.
In the late '70s, there was a ska revival in the United Kingdom, with bands like the Specials, Madness and the English Beat taking ska's grooves and updating them with a slightly punk attitude. Recently in this country, ska has been embraced by younger kids tired of the gloom and doom ofgrunge and metal. Snappy horn sections found their way into music by bands like No Doubt and Smash Mouth, who've gone on to broader styles and huge successes.
All over the country, ska bands are popping up, and the trend has turned into a musical movement that looks like it's not going away any time soon.
A SLICE OF PIETASTER
"We got started when we were all in school at Virginia Tech," says singer Stephen Jackson, who at 29 is the oldest Pietaster. "We all sort of knew each other, and we'd all grown up surrounded by Washington's do-it-yourself punk scene. Everyone we knew was putting together garage bands, and so we got together and started playing covers in people's flooded basements. Then all of a sudden we started writing songs and playing real clubs like the 9:30. It came together pretty quickly."
He's modest about the band's accomplishments of nearly 10 years, saying he was genuinely surprised when the band's 1997 release, "Willis," broke through on airwaves around the world. "We never set out to be a radio band," Jackson says. "We were a bar band, just having fun doing our thing; so the radio attention came as a surprise." "Out All Night" was the song from that record that propelled the Pietasters into the "A list" of current ska bands, and the Northern Virginia septet has been on the road nearly nonstop since its release.
They toured Europe with the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and crisscrossed Canada and the United States many times in their customized 1973 Greyhound bus. "It's pretty luxurious compared to the vans we used to drive," Jackson says. "We've welded in 12 bunks; we've built a little lounge in there; we've got an RV generator, a video PlayStation. Then about every third or fourth day we get a hotel room and hose everybody off."
Given the upcoming release of the band's new CD, "Amazing Mix Tape #6," (due next month from Hellcat Records and produced again by former Bad Religion guitarist and Epitaph Records founder Brett Gurewitz), the Pietasters probably won't be slowing down any time soon. "We don't really make much money off selling records," Jackson says. "And I was just working on the budget, and I figured out that if we don't start touring in August they'll be repossessing our stuff."
Jackson figures he and the rest of the guys (bassist Todd Eckhardt, guitarist Tom Goodin, drummer Rob Steward, saxophonist Alan Makranczy, trumpeter Toby Hansen and trombonist Jeremy Roberts) are in it for the long haul. "I'd like to keep building it to be able to get to Japan and Australia. As long as there's an audience that wants to see us play and we're still having fun doing it and still believe in the songs we'll be out there."
* To hear a free Sound Bite from the Pietasters, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8113. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
BOTTOMS UP FOR CHARITY
Sometimes (I must admit) I feel a little guilty about this crazy beat of mine. Hanging out in bars and clubs. Getting paid for hanging around bars and clubs. Thinking maybe I should find a way to do something for those not as lucky as I. Of course, that would be everyone on the planet, so usually I just put off any do-gooding.
Thankfully, Andrew Miscuk has come up with a way to combat that tendency toward passive Samaritanism in folks like me. He decided that if charity for some doesn't begin at home, then perhaps it could begin at the bar.
Miscuk is the vice chairman of the Adams-Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commission (1C) in Ward 1, and last Sunday he began a roving weekly bartending gig where every tip he makes goes to a local charity. His first assignment was the Duplex Diner at 2004 18th St. NW, and all evening he showed his publican mettle by working the draught taps with the best of them.
He ought to have, given his past experience. "I've worked behind the bar at all kinds of places," says the Pittsburgh native who moved here six years ago. "Heaven & Hell, Toledo Lounge, Asylum in Exile, Crush, Fat Cats, Polly's, Lucky Bar."
A certain reporter with a documented fondness for blue cocktails put Miscuk through his paces by ordering one of Duplex's Negritas (a drink with more ingredients than the Orioles have victories), and he did just fine. The reporter tipped generously. And felt all warm about it because the money was going straight to the Neighborhood Safety Net, a charity run by the Altar of Ed Ministry for people who've fallen through society's cracks.
"It's a pilot program," says the Rev. James Wilder, administrator of the program who was sipping pineapple juice at the bar on Sunday (though he admitted a past fondness for Jack Daniels). "We've been working with one fellow on a fixed income who was getting evicted, and we were able to place him in another apartment on the same street. The smile has returned to his face, and we hope to be able to help people throughout the community."
Miscuk says he made $233 in tips for the group, and hopes to maintain that level or increase it over the next four Sunday evenings when he mans the taps at the Pharmacy Bar, Pearl, Tom Tom and Felix. The charities being helped will change, but they're all local (Urban Rangers, Thumbs Up, Mary's Center and Good Shepard). "As an ANC commissioner I've had a chance to meet so many people in the community, and this was just a chance to get out there and be a part of it," says the 33-year-old computer consultant. "So much of what we do on the ANC is protesting some action or another, I thought I'd take a more active approach to helping the community."
Now that's an unusual attitude for a politician to take. Perhaps we can hope for Miscuk to take this mind-set to the next level? "Oh, no," he says laughing. "I'm a one-term commissioner. When this one's done, I'm out of that game."
CAPTION: Strange bedfellows: Politician Andrew Miscuk mixes drinks for good causes.
CAPTION: The Pietasters, a Northern Virginia band, have sampled some success during the current ska movement.