The road to Ska Fest starts here:

Before I say anything about my experience at the first two days of the 14th annual Victoria Ska Festival, props must be given to the Victoria Ska Society for their work with the community. The free shows the society put on at Ships Point during Ska Fest each year are always impressive, uniting events. They bring people from all walks of life together in a tide of groovy joy. To walk through the crowd during these shows is like living in a utopian dream where everyone has a smile on their face and treats each other with a love and respect that the flower children only dreamed about. Even the mosh pit stops to pick up fallen members, while performers (Mainly Kris Wood of Blackberry Wood) yell out “Watch out for each other! Take care of each other!” Between these shows and the free community workshops it puts on annually with the help of performers, the Victoria Ska Society proves time and time again that in the end, it’s all about community. (There’s also something very inspiring about seeing the head of the festival in the middle of the crowd, loving it more than anyone else.) Really, a serious thanks to you all.

And now that that’s out of the way…

I have grown weak and soft. This is what Ska Fest has taught me. I am exhausted by the end of each day — eight hours of work followed by six hours of dancing. This isn’t a real problem, to be sure, (“Oh no, I have so much great live music to watch, boo hoo!”) but it needs to be pointed out because viewing as much of the music as possible has quickly become a delicate, complicated act of energy conservation. Dance too much too early in the evening and I’m likely not to make it all the way through (as was the case with day one).

The Revivers, from California, were on the stage as I arrived on the first night and were a great surprise. Their brand of classicist, old-school reggae music was a great way to kick everything off for me. Despite the close relation between the two genres, I’ve always been more of a roots reggae guy as opposed to a ska guy. I think the ska revival music of the mid 90s just turned me off of the whole thing. The Debonaires took the stage shortly after, and while they contained most of the members of the Revivers, they were much more rooted in traditional ska music. The music was more than well-performed, warmly received and fun to dance to, but it took my mind out of the game, and I decided to conserve my energy for the upcoming nights.

I skipped out on Montreal ska-champions the Planet Smashers, with Victoria’s own Rocky Mountain Rebel Music, at 9one9 to go home and rest. From all accounts, it was a great show, and I can’t imagine why people would lie about something like that. Both bands have well-deserved reputations as great live bands, and I doubt they changed their colours for this show.

Night two was even more of an energy trial. I missed Jon Middleton of Jon & Roy as I was not off work early enough to catch his set. But I did arrive in time to see the great Blackberry Wood. My personal highlight of last year (Okay, they tied with Blitz the Ambassador), the ’Wood did not disappoint. With an incredibly high-energy set that featured “an old English folk song by a group called the Cure,” and a signature performance of the hundred-plus years old jazz standard “St. James Infirmary Blues,” Blackberry Wood had a large part of the crowd feverishly dancing through the evening. Obviously, biding time for a delayed Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars, the band played more one-last-songs than I might have ever seen before. But man, was it worth the wait.

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars (SLRAS) brought an overabundance of joy and happiness to the Inner Harbour crowd to round out night two of the Ska Fest freebies. Really, the place was packed, and I don’t think there was a face without a smile pasted across it. Reggae music is the music of the dispossessed, the oppressed, and SLRAS, formed by a group of displaced Sierra Leonean refugees who met in Guinea, showed why it has become the music of those groups throughout the world. The peace and joy that the band sends out is nothing short of marvelous. Guaranteed good vibes — vibes I desperately needed in my life last night.

I was running on fumes by the time I got to 9one9 for the late show with Island acts The New Groovement and Bananafish Dance Orchestra and headliner Chicago Afrobeat Project. All of the evening’s prior dancing had really taken it out of me, but the New Groovement was there to lift my spirits and recharge my batteries just a bit. They share a musical aesthetic with Bananafish and both bands were enjoyably funky. I got my dance on, no doubt. Unfortunately, I got my dance on too hard and the thought of walking home and getting less than four hours of sleep before work terrified me and forced me to leave before I got to see the Chicago Afrobeat Project. It’s a real shame too, because while doing sonic research for the festival, I kind of fell in love with these guys.

All in all, the first two days of the 14th annual Victoria Ska Fest have been massively successful (despite my inability to suck it up and genuinely go-for-broke) and just another demonstration of why Ska Fest is arguably the most consistently exciting week on the Victoria musical calendar.

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