April 19, 2005
By KENNETH PARTRIDGE, Special to the Courant
The ghosts of Spring Heeled Jack, Johnny Too Bad and the Strikeouts, and dozens of other defunct late-'90s Connecticut ska bands can rest peacefully and satisfied: There is still - almost inexplicably - a local scene.
The latest proof came Friday night at the Webster Theater in Hartford, where a respectable crowd turned up for Mustard Plug and the Pietasters, two bands that helped boost the sale of skinny ties and Specials records nearly a decade ago.
One reason ska still draws in Hartford is the existence of several local bands with loyal, ready-to-dance fans. More than the headliners, Tip and Van and Stealing From Peter packed the house with flailing-armed skankers, suggesting that homegrown acts have not lost their grip on punked-up Jamaican rhythms.
Following lively sets from both bands, Pittsburgh's The Code actually dared to play without a horn section, temporarily putting the kibosh on dancing with its crunching, hook-less punk.
Relief came with Mustard Plug, a Michigan band that made its name during ska's heyday with sing-along melodies and the kind of dork-punk flourishes you'd expect from a band with food in its name.
As always, the Mustard men trampled on ska's smooth, Jamaican roots with pop-punk choruses and matching black shirts and bright yellow ties. With "Mr. Smiley," and "Skank by Numbers," - both from the 1994 album "Big Daddy Multitude" - the group made goofy nostalgia come alive.
Mustard Plug and the Pietasters may be genre mates in a broad sense, but they have little in common musically. Closing with an hour of traditional ska and foot-stomping soul, the `Tasters took a more mature approach, which might have been why some band members didn't seem to be having very much fun.
Then again, singer Steve Jackson was having enough for everyone, staggering red-faced across the stage like he'd spent the afternoon open-mouthed under a beer tap. However soused, Jackson was on his game, channeling his lungs through the back of his throat like a '60s soul-man.
As the crowd thinned after midnight, stragglers were treated to a drink-hoisting "Maggie Mae" and punk-rock "Somebody," the latter featuring local trombone journeyman Chris Rhodes on guest vocals.
Rhodes, who's played with Spring Heeled Jack and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, completed the 1998 time warp, bringing fond smiles of remembrance to the faces of anyone in the audience old enough to remember a time when Connecticut ska could almost be taken for granted.