Featured photo by Katie Oberlin
Last August, Sean Done (DJ Judge Upstroke), and Darren Drouin of local ska band The Sentries approached House of TARG about starting the Voice of the People monthly ska series. It was an old idea that the two friends had been kicking around for a while, and it was simple enough: on Thursday nights, friends with great ska collections would spin records, and local and touring ska bands would perform. Neither The Sentries nor the bar could have expected the massive crowd that showed up for their first test run. It went so well that the venue quickly moved to have the night run instead on the last Friday or Saturday of each month.
Now, for many people, a monthly live ska series sounds as unique and spontaneous as a pinball bar, but truth be told, I’ve never seen a group of people work harder to stay afloat than the guys in Ottawa’s ska scene. Though the genre seems to constantly dip in and out of relevancy, it was only May 2008 that hundreds of ska fans piled into the New Bayou (the 1077 Bank St. space that would later become House of TARG) for a full weekend Ska Fest, and the city itself has boasted dozens of great ska bands since. To me, this is a positive – the fans of the genre are so committed that they are willing to form their own bands, book their owns festivals and put ska back onto the radar just about every 3 years.
Fortunately for us, the members of The Sentries have been hard at working continuing this legacy, using the Voice of the People series to bring ska fans together. In fact, when asked about the series, Drouin was all about the scene: “we are always looking for new artists and really want to give good ska, rocksteady, reggae bands and DJs a chance to play here in Ottawa.” That commitment to other groups is what made last night so special – the Sentries work so hard for the scene that it was great to attend an event about them. Locals Freshly Cut did a great job warming up the crowd with their reggae dub (and an amazing cover of “Fisherman” by the Congos!), but ultimately the night was about The Sentries, and they took charge.
First off, I had listened to their EP multiple times this week to get ready, but I have to say that their show was way faster and harder than the recording, which went over very well with the audience. When asked which branch of ska The Sentries identified with, Drouin mentioned they were more concerned with writing ska, reggae, and rocksteady songs that inspire dancing. No problem there – by the middle of the first song, the dance floor was officially occupied.
The night started off with an instrumental tune with alto sax player Julian Selody and trombonist Nick DiSaverio at the helm. Being relatively new to the group, Selody’s jazz-soaked solos paired very well with DiSaverio’s barky no-nonsense approach. The following song, they were joined on stage by singer Xander Galbreith, who was a force to be reckoned with, showing off his great vocal range with a classic cover of “How Many Times” from Marley’s ska days. Later in the set, he tested the waters with a new original called “Gone;” a breezy summer tune that contrasted nicely with the rest.
But for me, the rhythm section were the unsung heroes of the night. On bass, Drouin seamlessly switched between traditional ska walks and thumping reggae lines without missing a step, while drummer Matt Racha more known for his powerhouse guitar performances in The Valveenus, seemed completely at home on the drum kit. He looked like he was in his happy place as he attacked each rhythm with precision and a big grin. And though they each occasionally let loose to rip a great solo, guitarist Victor Doige and keyboardist Paul LeBlanc spent most of the night happily keeping rhythm and cuing the band.
All in all, this is a group that gets more professional with each performance, and it was great to see them be king of the castle for once. I highly recommend that you check out the next Voice of the People night, and more importantly, support the local ska artists that are keeping the traditional alive here in Ottawa. Have a listen to the below.
Garett Barr is a long time veteran of the Ottawa music scene. He has played in soul, ska, folk and punk bands in the area for over a decade, and shares his love for music daily as a teacher and collaborator.