Second wave ska legends The English Beat seem to make it back to Milwaukee with surprising regularity (I can recall at least two other shows in the recent past), but it's easy to see why when the dance-floor remains packed and just as bouncy as ever.
They returned to Milwaukee to play all their hits, or perhaps more accurately, all their songs at the Turner Ballroom on Sunday. The Rx Bandits opened.
It might seem odd upon first listen that the two bands were paired. The Beat have a poppy, two-tone ska sound with a little bit of a punk edge, while the Bandits are much more rock influenced. But each band sprung up as an outlet of frustration towards social upheaval.
The English Beat were the epitome of two-tone English ska, which mixed the original Jamaican soul with smoother grooves and a more urgent offbeat. It employs what I like to call the "Big City Saxophone" -- the kind of sax sound that was paired with over-sized black sunglasses and a jazzy leisure suit and is frequently given some solo space to light up the night.
Throughout the night they skipped around between their three-album discography, plucking out hits and cult classics, and eventually making their way to just about every tune in their catalog. Between each song one of the vocalists energized the crowd with echos, rhythms and general stage banter entertainment. Lead singer Dave Wakeling also revealed motivations behind select songs -- for example his decision to write against, instead of attack, the Nazi Liberation Front that had taken up camp in his hometown.
The band was also touring in support of the charity organization The Smile Train, which helps kids with cleft palates get the surgery needed to live a normal life. "Basically I'm asking you to start throwing money on stage," he said, and the crowd gladly obliged, crumpling up bills and launching them onto the stage. If I had to guess, they probably came pretty close to their goal.
By the time the night ended, the band had gone well beyond expectations, giving us over two hours of The English Beat. They certainly live up to their first album, appropriately named "I just Can't Stop It."
Despite their current rock leanings, the Bandits started out as an American third-wave ska-punk band more than 10 years ago.
After a steady line-up change, increasing maturity and a lot more practice (you should see guitarist Steven Choi's fingers blur across the fretboard), the Rx Bandits have been able to expertly combine the dynamics of the music from which they draw, from their previous ska sound, to rock, to punk, to folk and reggae. It's a jammy sort of sound that ebbs and flows between relaxed, bass-driven reggae with keyboard tones that drip like icy water.
They employ hard, short and fast punctuated sentences, all topped with the emotional wails of lead singer Matt Embree. Their fans knew the music well and followed along, pumping their fists to every staccato beat, playing along on their air guitars, and air drums.
If you're sad that you missed your chance to see this classic band, be sure to check out the Miramar Theatre on Wednesday, where the original third-wave ska band the Toasters play with local legends The Invaders, as well as The Fear Nuttin' Band and Something to Do.
Jason McDowell grew up in central Iowa and moved to Milwaukee in 2000 to attend the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
In 2006 he began working with OnMilwaukee as an advertising designer, but has since taken on a variety of rolls as the Creative Director, tackling all kinds of design problems, from digital to print, advertising to branding, icons to programming.
In 2016 he picked up the 414 Digital Star of the Year award.
Most other times he can be found racing bicycles, playing board games, or petting dogs.