New York

Ska is Back! No, Not Really


December 23, 2005

The story of the Pietasters is not one of triumph. The band ascended to the top of the teeming DC ska scene pretty soon after dropping its first album in 1994. Their patches were on thousands of bomber jackets, their guy-skanking logo became one of the biggest guy-skanking logos in the country, they had at least three or four songs that would turn into huge singalongs whenever they were played at the right parties. Late in the 90s, they signed with Tim Armstrong’s Hellcat label and got up on MTV2 a couple of times. Of the thousands and thousands of third-wave ska bands clogging up VFW halls in the mid-to-late 90s, they were one of the few that new how to write a song, using the ka-chunk ka-chunk guitar thing as a means rather than an end, bringing in oom-pah polka lurch and Motown grease and drinking-song bluster and eyebrow-cocked lounge-singer lechery. They managed to get big without doing the ska-punk thing or the ska-core thing, without trading in their Fred Perrys for skate shorts or Hawiian shirts. They were about the best thing American ska had to offer. But then kids like me graduated high school and decided that ska was lame and totally forgot about them. They got dropped from Hellcat, ended up on Fueled by Ramen for one album, and haven’t put anything out in nearly three years. They don’t tour nearly as much anymore. A few of their members live in or around Baltimore, and they’ve gone from being local celebrities to local characters. At the height of their powers, a headlining Pietasters show could sell out DC’s 1400-capacity 9:30 Club. These days, they can’t fill the Sidebar, a hole-in-the-wall Baltimore punk dive about an eighth the size of the 9:30.

So not a triumph. But there’s something admirable about the way they’ve doggedly soldiered on ever since their fortunes flagged, playing the exact same show as they did when they were big. And the home-for-Christmas show may be the ideal environment to experience the Pietasters in 2005. The crowd that shows up may be older now, there to relive high-school glory days and catch up with old friends and get drunk, but it still knows the words to all the old songs, it still dances and yells along and treats the band’s members like returning heroes. The band still looks as happy to be onstage as it ever did. Everything that happened on the Sidebar on Christmas Eve Eve was a smaller-version simulacra of stuff that would’ve happened at the band’s legendary shows a decade earlier, including the unexpectedly ecstatic skinhead brawl that sent one guy running out of the bar with blood running down the side of his head (not something I’ve seen yet in New York, but that’s what I get for going to see stuff like the Decemberists). If the band didn’t sound as sharp as it once did, I wouldn’t have noticed; I was too busy talking with two high school friends I hadn’t seen in years (one is a bartender in Brooklyn now; the other is studying to become a gym teacher in South Carolina). I can report, however, that it’s still fun to get smashed and rush the stage when the band plays “Maggie Mae” or “Drinking and Driving.”

So maybe that’s what I’m saying here. In the right context, there is no critical impluse, even for a critic, in dealing with a formative-experience band like the Pietasters. Whether or not the band played well on Friday night is entirely beside the point. I had fun going to see them, and I would’ve never not had fun going to see them. Their songs still exist in my reptilian memory banks, as they do for many, many others. High-school stuff, agonizing over how to dress and talk and consume music, isn’t the kind of stuff that disappears as you age, and so bands like the Pietasters, bands that made things a little easier for awkward-ass kids once, will always have a place. If I’d gone to see the arguably relevant Spank Rock play the club around the corner from the Sidebar, I wouldn’t have had anywhere near as much fun. Relevance isn’t everything, especially around Christmas.

Download: “Maggie Mae”

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