There are two types of ska bands, just like, as Stravinsky said, there are two types of music: the good and the bad. The bad ones are the ones usually fronted by people who think all you need to do to play sax is to blow, but you need a lot more than that. If you don’t understand this basic point, you blow.
The River City All Stars belong among the good ones, as they showed May 7 at Limelight when they opened the music at the first anniversary bash of The Garage, the WOAI webcast hosted by Christina Rodríguez. Other bands on the strong bill included Pop Pistol, Chisme, Yes, Inferno, and the Heroine, whose singer Lynnwood King was perhaps the most enthusiastic member of the audience during the All Stars’ set.
The fact that the frontman of San Antonio’s loudest and (disputably) baddest band was so into the All Stars is significant. Ska bands are often discounted as dancing machines, but any good two-tone group knows that danceability counts most when you already have mastered power, edge, and adventurousness. And the All Stars have edge in spades.
The usually seven-piece supergroup (its members come from Uptown Creepers, Echo Squad, and Kevin Goes 2 College, among others) is not particularly original, but their simple, well-arranged mix of ska and reggae with a solid beat, imaginative solos, and a convincing frontman (Vincent Macías, absolutely relaxed onstage) is engaging. Even without their lead guitarist Mario Salazar, they powered through a strong set.
Opener “So Many Lies” is a great reggae song that turns into furious ska towards the end. Drummer Juan Contreras’ strength and bassist David Cruz’s elegance gave the number a firm rhythmic base, while the right hand of second guitarist Trevor Schultz kept things moving. Trombonist Mike Chia and saxophonist Manny Sauceda engaged in an impressive give-and-take, and during Chia’s soloing Sauceda offered a tasteful counter-melody that indicated this is a band concerned with more than just groove.
The only cover of the six-song set, a good reggae version of the Beatles’ “All My Loving,” was enjoyable, but it highlighted my only reservation about the band — their lazy use of vocal harmonies. On different occasions, three members of the band sang harmonies to Macías lead, but they seemed half-hearted, although they clearly had the range — the songs (especially Paul McCartney’s classic) begged for strong two-part vocal harmonies. At times singing too softly (Schultz), or standing at the side of the mic (Chia), the harmonies were the weakest part of an otherwise smoking night.
As I was leaving the show, I kept imagining these guys with solid harmonies (sung with confidence, possibly even exploring three-part vocals) and their lead guitarist onstage. Give them that, and the River City All Stars will be a force to be reckoned with.