Published Jul 19, 2013A sweltering heat wave in Montreal broke momentarily last night — long enough for Jamaican ska legends to deliver almost an hour and a half of their best-loved songs on an outdoor stage.
Earlier in the evening, Stooges Brass Band warmed the audience up with typical New Orleans second line material, closing their set with a mashup of Rebirth Brass Band's "Do Whatcha Wanna" and "The Treme Song" by John Boutté. But they played to a fairly paltry crowd with limited energy — understandable, given the suffocating humidity and misty rain, but still unfortunate. Their set would have been a lot more fun had more people put their back into it.
By the time the Skatalites took the stage, a welcome breeze wafted through the park, cutting the blanket of humidity in half. The brief reprieve allowed people to dance without feeling like they might pass out from heat exhaustion, and so dance they did.
Lester Sterling may be the only surviving founding member of the Skatalites, but with a band filled out by a number of accomplished musicians, fans paid no mind. The music itself was as authentic as it ever was, particularly when sometimes-singer Doreen Shaffer came out to lend her voice to a half-dozen or so songs. Her voice was as if it had been carefully extracted from a time capsule — pristine in its sweetness and tone, a throwback to early pop music. She took the lead on songs like doo-wop's "My Boy Lollipop," "Sugar Sugar" and fan favourite "Simmer Down," a classic ska tune that had everyone moving in hypnotizing synchronicity.
The Skatalites are widely regarded as, if not the originators of ska, then at least pioneers in its creation. The band formed in the '50s, though their first record, Ska Authentic, only came in 1964. Though they broke up shortly thereafter, they reformed in 1983, after the second wave of ska — two-tone — swept through England and over music charts. The Specials, who themselves recently played in Montreal, covered the Skatalites' "You're Wondering Now" on their debut album.
So to see the aging singer and alto saxophone player Sterling completely in his element was pretty powerful. The band played their greatest hits, including "Music Is My Occupation," "James Bond," "Latin Goes Ska" and set closer "Guns of Navarone," with a few covers and surprises thrown in. When it was over, nearly everyone left the park beaming, if a little sweaty.