There was a time, Manu Janssens told me, that all you had to do in Fresno was say the words “ska show” and people would come out and the place would be full.
That would have been in the ’90s, years before I moved here — during the thick of ska’s third wave and the heyday of the city’s gift to the then-flourishing national ska scene, Let’s Go Bowling.
That’s hardly the case here anymore for any act in any genre. LGB still gets together for a handful of well-received shows a year, but for a local band that plays regularly, or tries to, the sledding is much rougher (especially in a city that gets no snow).
Fresno is a place where the arts are never more than tepidly appreciated (the major museum in town went under in January, and two others are hurting badly) and that goes for music, too. People will pay good money for a major product act at Fresno State’s arena, the Save Mart Center, or to see any of a kazillion cover bands — and Fresno leads the league in “tribute” bands — but original indie acts, even the immensely talented ones, struggle to get anyone to come out to see them.
Live music clubs are few, the club owners do no promotion at all for their venues (too cheap to even put up fliers), bring few national-level performers (a sin, considering Fresno is right in the center of California and would be the ideal stopover for shows between San Francisco and L.A.), and the general public seems just as apathetic. (Or, in a city where the official unemployment rate is over 20%, maybe they’re just plain broke.) So my Fresno friends are reduced to mostly having to reminisce about all the great national shows back in the day at the Wild Blue Yonder, the Cadillac Club (both long gone) or the Wilson Theatre (now a right-wing church).
And it’s in this climate that Janssens, the ringleader and tenor saxophonist of the current local ska standard-bearers, The Suppressors, has decided to put out the band’s first album, “Small Time Hustler.” The release party will take place Friday (May 14) at Audie’s Olympic in Fresno. I don’t hold much hope for the Big No embracing the group or the album, but they do have the legs to do something on a statewide level, and maybe a national stage as well.
The group came together five years ago, formed out of the local scooter-and-ska scene, and if you don’t live in California, just know that the scenes for scooters, ska and Northern soul are intertwined, and they’re large and fervent. And The Suppressors are a solid draw throughout the rest of the state and usually get pretty decent crowds on their home turf — not always, but more often than not.
There have been lineup changes of late, but the core — Janssens, singer Omari Jones, keyboardist Steve Coleman and bassist David Flores — remains the same. And after two years in the making — and nearly that long since their debut 7-incher, “Small Time Hustler”/”Watch Out for Pirates” — the band has offered up a fun full-length listen. Save for the production, it’s pretty much what you’d hear from them on a Saturday night, where the boys chill, the girls dance with each other and the PBR flows freely.
Their sound falls somewhere in between the first two waves of ska — lots of laid-back sax and trombone straight out of mid-’60s Jamaica, a bit of frenzy circa 1980, plus the usual live version of “One Step Beyond.” They love their ska and it shows. They don’t try to ape one particular group or subculture — they just know their stuff and flow with it and sound as if they’re having a lot of fun doing it. (And let’s face it — if you’re holding down day jobs and you’re not getting paid a hell of a lot for playing out, you damn well better love it.)
Overall, the production is too timid and muddy; Jones’ slightly cigarette-raspy, soulful voice, not the most powerful to start with, is buried too far down, and the saxes and brass aren’t as pronounced as they should be. It says volumes that the spirit of the album comes through loud and clear, even if the mix doesn’t.
And the album, to an extent, is a reflection of what they see in Fresno life. “Crystal Meth,” about one of the city’s better-known exports, is appropriately ominous and frantic — all the punkishness of the second wave, with punchy sax blasting away and a spooky organ dancing like skeletons at Halloween. “Kids,” a rock-steady melody turned up a notch, blasts uneducated, lazy and sometimes downright rude youth, hanging out and bumming change and giving attitude in return. (Hmmm … sounds like the Tower District …) The self-explanatory “Guns” combines a rock-steady spirit and a slight edge of menace.
There’s a laid-back feel at other moments of the disc — namely, the middle of the lineup — that evokes sunny, hot, breezy, oceanic Jamaica instead of sun-baked, brutally hot, landlocked Fresno. “Missus No Personality” could have been off a ’60s ska compilation, and “Monkey Ska” is a real throwback as well. Janssens’ sax, forceful at times and highly melodic at others, has a lot to do with that. His work deftly weaves and wafts its way through “Real Rock” with almost a jazz feel.
And if you haven’t heard the single … The brisk-paced, very danceable title tune sounds re-recorded here; the saxes and horns aren’t as punchy as they come off on vinyl, though the vocals are clearer. “Pirates,” the B-side instrumental, is a solid, high-spirited cut meant to make you go herky-jerky on the dance floor.
The one song that troubles me — and maybe I’m reading too much into it and not getting the lyrics — is “Marcus Wesson.” It’s the sprightliest, sunniest song on the disc, in an early-to-mid-’60s style, but the subject of the tune is the very heart of darkness itself.
While they sing “We won’t say what he did,” for those of you who don’t live in Fresno, it’s a song about the city’s most heinous mass murderer. A week and a half before I moved here in March 2004 — and five houses down from where I moved — Wesson shot nine of his children in cold blood; because of rampant incest, some of those kids were also his grandchildren. He’s on death row, as you can imagine. Knowing the band, I’m erring on the side of caution and guessing they were juxtaposing the lightness of the Wesson they say was a ska DJ at one point with the darkness of what they won’t say he did. But I’m kind of uneasy about the song.
In all, the production is what keeps a very good album from being absolutely killer. But the essence is there. If you’ve heard these guys before, their first disc is pretty much what you’ll expect. If this is your first go-round, you’ll at least get to experience some of the good times the rest of us have had seeing them in the clubs the past five years. And this disc will make its way through the ska circuit soon enough; good news travels fast.
The Suppressors’ CD release show for “Small Time Hustler” will start at 9ish PDT Friday, May 14, at Audie’s Olympic, 1426 N. Van Ness Ave., Fresno. Cover is $6. For more info on the band and the album, go to http://www.myspace.com/suppressors or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have a new album you think I should review, or know of a new album I should be aware of — and it has to be available in CD format — email me at email@example.com. For disclosure’s sake: I bought this one.