Some things are supposed to pair well together, at least we’re told from a young age. You’re supposed to eat red wine with your red meat, black shirts and denim, or even Kobe and Shaq in the same room circa 2004, what could go wrong? Wait … scratch that last one. But you get the idea. We’re told some things go well together and others don’t.
But really, what matters the most is, if you like the way two things go together, pair them and be damned what the critics tell you. That’s definitely a lesson for anyone who raised an eyebrow at the bill of nineties grunge rockers Soul Asylum opening up for the late 70s/early 80s ska revivalist sounds of the English Beat at Irving Plaza recently. Hell, I was skeptical even though I loved music from both bands in their day and will admit that the Beat and it’s legacy have made steady appearances in any music player I’ve carried since my first Walkman. But man, any side eye glances I gave that billing as pairing well together went right out that window that night.
Before those two acts took the stage, New York locals, The Cringe were there to get the crowd going. The quartet has been around since the early 2000s and went for a no-frills rock and roll sound straight out the gate. Lead singer and guitarist John Cusimano may look weathered with his salt and pepper beard, but you’d never know it the way he whips his hair around and climbed the speakers to get high above the crowd. Cusimano also made sure the pit crowd knew he hadn’t forgotten them he sang most of their last song from in between the ticket buyers.
Next up was a band I honestly hadn’t thought much of over the last decade or more: Soul Asylum. But they were a huge part of my high school and college years, hitting their peak fame with the 1994 single “Runaway Train.” To me, at that age, Dave Pirner stood out as that grunge rocker with the dreads who dated Winona Ryder. And maybe for those two reasons, and their relative obscurity since then, I tended to look skeptically at their legacy (Weird to think that of band that once toured with the pioneering Husker Du, isn’t it?). But man, as soon as I heard the first notes of their opening number, “Somebody to Shove,” any doubts about Pirner, and his new-ish band mates’ ability to rock, were gone and never crept back into my head. They played a mix of their hits from back in the day (like Runaway Train and Black Gold) and mixed in tracks from their new album Change of Fortune. And Pirner made it known he knows how some people view his band telling the crowd the new album is pretty fucking awesome, “if you can find it.”
Throughout their set, which was live streamed on Yahoo!, Pirner smiled and shredded on guitar. He moved across the stage leaning into both bassist Winston Roye and lead guitarist Ryan Murphy. The band just kept feeding off a frenzied crowd as they cheered louder and louder for each upcoming song. This is honestly the first time I can remember seeing an opening act have an encore performance through their close to, if memory serves, 18 song set.
All throughout the gig I kept flashing back to my high school days and thinking, “I can’t believe it’s 2016 and I’m having this much fun at a Soul Asylum gig!” It helps that Pirner embraces the groups past hits and history while delivering a stage show that feeds off that energy. The band all look they’re having the time of their lives on stage. And so did the crowd.
And then came the final blast to the past: The English Beat. Strolling out on to the stage in their matching black Freddy Perry polos, Dave Wakeling and his band didn’t waste any time by busting out the Prince Buster cover “Rough Rider.” The English Beat brought all their trademark sounds and style, from tinny guitars to Matt Morrish’s wailing sax and King Schascha’s raucous vibe as toaster and rapper. Schascha’s importance to the Beat’s aesthetic cannot be understated. Part MC, part rapper, part dancer and part host, he keeps the energy moving on stage when Wakeling isn’t throwing a few bon mots at the crowd.
And some of those bon mots were Wakeling, jokingly telling the crowd that it’s hard to understand Schascha’s Caribbean accent because it’s too San Diego (One of Schascha’s hometowns). Wakeling told the audience two previous U.S. presidents got elected using his cover of The Staple Singers’ “Ill Take You There” as a campaign anthem and that maybe, if anyone in the crowd wanted to run, he’d take them to D.C.
The English Beat played all hits all night long as pockets of dance circles broke out in the crowd. Whether it’s ‘Mirror in the Bathroom’ or “Tenderness,” (a song by one of the original Beat’s legacy acts General Public) you could see the audience singing along with each new track. Wakeling might not move much on stage these days but his voice and smile are as infectious as ever.
The English Beat came out of one the most important act of the ska revival of the late 70s: The Beat. And the bands that emerged from the Beat legacy – the English Beat to General Public to Fine Young Cannibals – were all hit makers in their day. Each became favorites of mine growing up, and judging by the crowd that night they were all favorites of everyone at Irving Plaza as well.
Article: Omar Kasrawi