How ska legends The Toasters came to Maine and turned me into a believer
I’ve known about ska music for decades but I didn’t start believing in it until yesterday. That’s when I saw legendary ska masters The Toasters — twice.
Around noontime, I rode my motorcycle (a Kawasaki KLR650 if you’re interested) down to Acton, from Portland. I wanted to photograph the cool hot rods at the seventh annual Maine Hoods Car Club “Riot.” I went last year and it was a blast: Some bands, lots of sun and scads of eye-popping ocular candy for my camera lens.
This year, the sun was missing in action, though. Instead of the high, blue skies of last summer, glowering clouds ruled the day. Even worse, fat raindrops kept dropping at random intervals. I met lots of motorcycles and classic cars fleeing the scene as I approached Iron Tails Saloon, where the event was going down.
I pulled into the parking lot and eased my dusty, road-weathered bike in amongst the shiny Harley-Davidsons. I switched my one-lunged beast off and saw there were almost no flashy cars left. The sky juice was just starting to let loose, too. So, I went inside and ordered a burger. I snarfed it down and listed to local punkabilly rockers, The Outsiders, tear it up on stage with their usual, ferocious attack. The trio’s leader, known as Elvirus, kept up a steady stream of guitar antics and his sidekicks kept right up with him.
Fun stuff but I was still disappointed about the weather.
When The Outsiders finished I made to leave. Looking out the window, though, I could see the rain coming down in a torrent. Puddles were forming on the pavement. Rivers were flowing off the eaves. I decided to stay put and listen to the next band, The Toasters.
Their name sounded familiar but I couldn’t place them. I could see they had a horn section as they assembled on stage for their sound check. Someone said they were legendary and from New York City. When the trombone player started to warm up, a bearded biker behind me yelled, “Yeah baby, rock and roll,” in a mocking tone. He got a laugh from his lady companion.
I happen to have a soft spot in my ears for the trombone since I dabble with the instrument. Intrigued, I ordered a beer and settled in.
When The Toasters started, it was obvious from the first measure, this was ska. The frantic off-beat accent, powerful horn stabs and double time walking bass were unmistakeable. The definitely Maine crowd didn’t know what to make at first. I’m positive that most — like me — were ska virgins. But it wasn’t long before the tight, powerful beat took over the room. This was music for dancing.
The ladies began moving down front in two and threes. They didn’t know any of the songs and they didn’t care.
I forgot my beer and grabbed my cameras. I commenced to moving my body and snapping frames from off to one side. At one point, I realized I’d been smiling for so long, my face was getting tired.
The saxophone and trombone players were amazing. Together, the sounded like a four piece horn section. On their own, they did muscular, gymnastic solos that made you forget about any rocking guitar slinger you’ve seen.
Bass notes in double and triple time cascaded from the bass player’s hands. He barely moved his feet through the set but his index and middle fingers were blur.
The drummer knew just when to play and how much, smashing out the beat without a break.
The singer and guitar player, Robert “Bucket” Hingley, kept the show tight, on track and sang without frills. Hingley played a few guitar solos but knew the horns were the main course. He’s the founder and only remaining original member of the band. According to his Wikipedia page, he’s something like 63 years old. Amazing. It goes to show you, you don’t have to have radio hits to have a fulfilling life in music. There’s still space out there for serious touring artists who make music unfit for classic rock, new country and pop radio stations.
As for the band’s story, the bio section of The Toaster’s website says:
The Toasters are one of the original American third-wave ska bands. Founded in New York way back in 1981 by Buck. We’ve released 9 studio albums… Buck is the only constant member in the band. He moved over to the US to manage the Forbidden Planet comic book store, one year later he formed The Toasters.
Two more years along and we reach “Recriminations,” our debut EP, produced by Joe Jackson…
Over the following years we expanded with the addition of a brass section, releasing “Skaboom!” in 1987. Since then, the lineup has seen many new faces (regular contributors included Coolie Ranx, Matt Malles, Brian Sledge, Lester Sterling – followed by a huge etc.), we released a bunch more albums, singles, EP’s & compilations…
Up to today we’re still touring around the world, filling the dance-floors with ska. While we’re at it we’ve also brought out a couple of hot-sauces & brews.
Of course, I’d heard ska before — but never like this, never live. These guys had so much energy, especially for a rainy afternoon in Maine. I was genuinely moved. Their music gripped me, made me happy, transforming a dreary Saturday into an unexpected party. They could have just gone through the motions but they didn’t. They played the gig, to a room full of non ska fans, like it mattered.
And it did matter — to me anyway. I walked a way a convert, a complete believer.
Hingley said from the stage, “I’ve been in this band for 36 years and I don’t think we’ve every played a car show before.”
They finished after an all-too-short hour and packed up. I fist bumped the trombone player and thanked him for the sonic acrobatics he got out of his horn. He indicated they were in a hurry to get to their next gig and asked me how far Portland was from there. It turned out they were playing a again, this time at Geno’s, in the evening. That’s within walking distance of my house.
I said, “Oh, about an hour — and I’ll see you there.
I didn’t bring my cameras to the night show. I brought my wife instead. It was an epic night of sweat and beer. The band was a blaze of energy with a full pit of dancers in front of them. I don’t dance but I danced to The Toasters.
They left Portland, headed back to New York City right after the show. This year they’ll be playing gigs all over the eastern U.S., Europe and even Japan.
I’m sure they’ll be making more believers — like me — everywhere they go.